COAST LAW

Beachfront home amnesty extended to 75 years

Reform brings relief to owners but environmentalists warn of costal damage

Owners of these luxury properties on Empuriabrava's canals in Girona province were among those facing expropriation. / PERE DURÁN

An overhaul of Spain’s legislation covering coastal areas announced on Friday will allow homeowners, many of them non-Spaniards, to keep their beachfront properties for at least another 75 years. But the proposals have angered environmental groups, who fear further development of the country’s coastline as a result.

The 1988 Coast Law nationalized the entire Spanish coastline, and with it all properties that fell within its at times arbitrary boundaries. Owners of properties that fell foul of the legislation, many of them from the UK and Germany, were given a 30-year concession of use, which would have expired in 2018. The aim was to make the whole length of the coastline accessible to the public and to defend the coast against erosion and excessive urbanization.

The law established two zones separated by a demarcation line known as a deslinde: the public domain, made up of the surf zone and the beach, in which there can be no private ownership. Inside this public domain everything belongs to the state and there are no ownership rights. The second zone, running inland to around half a kilometer, includes areas with restrictions on private ownership, with more stringent restrictions nearer the shoreline.

The new legislation provides a special regime for 11 areas, which will be taken out of the public domain.

The aim is to avoid the risk of foreign homeowners losing their property rights”

Along with properties on the shoreline of the island of Formentera in the Balearics, houses built in Rocafel (Alicante), Puerto de Santa Pola (Alicante), Marina de Empuriabrava (Girona), Platja d’Aro (Girona), Punta Umbría (Huelva), the historic centers of Isla Cristina and el Caño del Cepo (Huelva), along with properties on the beachfront in Pedregalejo and El Palo (Málaga), and Oliva (Valencia) will now be able to be sold.

The preamble to the 24-page draft reform explains the need for a change to the current legislation, saying that the 1988 law “has tolerated outcomes that are not acceptable in environmental terms,” adding that over the last 24 years “time has consolidated certain situations,” and that the law has “prompted mistrust and uncertainty.”

“The aim of the reform is to avoid the risk of homeowners losing their property rights in the short term, and particularly bearing in mind the difficulties this could create for foreigners,” the text continues. The owners of properties close to the coastline will now be able to carry out repair and refurbishment work, but not to extend them.

Over the last decade, the British and German media have reported a number of cases where non-Spaniards who bought their homes legally, and who paid all the corresponding taxes since purchase, saw their properties threatened with demolition. The legal battle went as far as Brussels, and a ruling from the European Parliament in March 2009 ordered the law be modified to respect the rights of property owners. In Andalusia, regional authorities applied the law retrospectively to declare legitimately built properties illegal. Since the law came into force, courts have rejected 96 percent of owners’ appeals against expropriation.

People are building wherever they want; we need to change that mentality”

But Greenpeace has described the draft bill as an “attack” on the Mediterranean coastline, saying that relaxing the law “will accelerate the loss of the land-sea public domain and open the door to new forms of land use on the coast, making the law useless.”

Mario Rodríguez, head of the Spanish chapter of Greenpeace, has called for “protests to demand that the achievements in defending the environment over the past two decades are not cast aside.” He is calling for environmental organizations and affected communities to take legal action. Greenpeace predicts that the legislation will see further building on parts of coastline where uncontrolled construction, sometimes associated with corruption in town halls, has already drawn reprimands from the European Union.

During the 1990s, vast stretches of Spain’s 2,200-kilometer Mediterranean coast were concreted over in a property boom fueled in part by a relentless demand from foreign buyers. Town halls often turned a blind eye to planning regulations or even took bribes to grant building licences to thousands of homes that were constructed on protected land.

Much of the previously unspoilt coastline was destroyed by over-development but recent crackdowns by regional authorities, the national government and prosecutors have led to thousands of homes being threatened with demolition.

The most spectacular violator of planning laws took place in the Costa del Sol town of Marbella. Planning chiefs allegedly took bribes to grant licenses to 30,000 houses. In 2006, police arrested 28 people, including the mayor, Marisol Yagüe, and the former head of planning, Juan Antonio Roca — the alleged mastermind of the fraud.

Coastal regions represent just seven percent of Spain’s territory and yet are home to 44 percent of the population. In some communities, three-quarters of all land adjoining the coast has been developed, and much of the infrastructure is geared towards the 48 million tourists who visit Spain each year.

“The last decade has seen the same number of new buildings as in the whole of our previous history,” explains María José Caballero of Greenpeace. “For years, people have thought they can build wherever they want along the coasts. We need to change that mentality.”

The Environment Ministry says Spain’s beaches are predicted to shrink by an average of 15 meters by 2050, as a result of rising sea levels.

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