"I want to leave Empuriabrava and Spain. I'm sure that in a few years they're going to take my house away from me," says Karin Aubin, 64. This German woman's life has been filled with anguish ever since the Environment Ministry fixed the new boundaries of the areas that fall under the public domain in the residential community of Empuriabrava, in Girona province. Empuriabrava is the world's largest residential marina, a 24-kilometer labyrinth of canals where residents have boats, not cars, parked outside their doors. Now, people like Aubin are afraid they might lose their homes and their berths following the implementation of the Coast Law, a piece of legislation that seeks to win back coastline ravaged by unbridled real estate development in past decades.
Empuriabrava is the world's largest residential marina, a 24km maze of canals
"People are losing their properties without any kind of compensation"
The case - probably the largest in Spain in terms of affected individuals - has pushed the Environment Ministry to seek a new interpretation of the law and find an alternative public route that will not cross through private properties. To Greenpeace, this is tantamount to preferential treatment for a luxury estate. The ministry replies this is a unique case.
Developers designed Empuriabrava in the 1960s as a tourist resort where owners would be able to moor their boats in front of their houses and go out sailing at any time. The project had its heyday in the 1970s and 80s, when thousands of foreigners bought properties here. There are mansions, semi-detached homes and even apartments, built right on the water's edge. There are 12,000 permanent residents, with the number of inhabitants shooting up to 80,000 in the summer.
"People bought their homes and berths in a legal manner, and now they are losing their properties without any kind of compensation," states Tim Pelters, of the Association of Empuriabrava Property Owners (APE), who defines the marina as "an impossible, unrepeatable scheme" and says there are around 7,000 properties under threat from the new legislation.
The 1988 Coast Law considers the entire shoreline to be public property. But the government had a complex task ahead of it: establishing the boundaries between public and private areas all over the national territory. Over 20 years after the law was passed, the technicians reached the most complex zones - and there are none more complex than Empuriabrava.
The demarcation, which was approved last December, meant that people would lose ownership of their berths, which they bought and registered together with their homes. The technicians declared the canals to be in the public domain, and established a six-meter transit area next to them so that, in future, anyone can pass through the waterways, which are legally considered part of the coastline. In many cases, the transit zone crossed gardens, pools and even homes.
Faced with over 500 formal complaints and the precarious situation of the residents, authorities backtracked six months later to reduce the impact of their decision. The new formula accepts an alternative route for the transit area, which runs along the back of the homes on existing streets, so that residents will not have to open up their own properties to strangers.
Pedro Antonio Ríos, director general of coastline sustainability, admits there was "a general interpretation for a singular situation" and says that it will be applied again if a similar case comes along. On June 30, Ríos signed a resolution that locates the new transit area behind the homes, so that passers-by will only have access to the canals at a few specific spots. "The law has leeway for a unique response to a unique case."
But the people involved feel the decision is ambiguous. "We will ask for further explanations," said the mayor of Castelló d'Empúries, Xavier Sanllehí, of CiU. The nationalist Catalan coalition has tried, with little luck so far, to get Empuriabrava declared a navigable town and leave it out of the Coast Law provisions entirely. Leticia Llobet, of the owners' association Aproem, is not happy, either. "What they've done is like trying to use the Windows operating system inside a Mac," she said. "They're seeking a legal solution to a case that is not foreseen by the law."
Meanwhile, environmentalists criticize the fact that the law is being softened, and say this sets a precedent. Pilar Marcos of Greenpeace says: "In practice this frees this maze of luxury homes from the obligation of providing public access to the sea."
Yet Ríos did not yield an inch to owners who wanted the berths to remain private property. In Spanish law, the water limits cannot be private, but simply a concession, and the ministry is offering a 30-year concession on the berths, extendable for another 30 years.
"We bought the house with the berth. Without it, [the home] is worthless. Besides, the title deed says that house and berth are an indivisible property," say an indignant Karin and Jean-Louis Aubin, who are unhappy about a solution that allows them to enjoy their boat but not to sell the berth.
Many have hung "For sale" signs on their properties. "People are tired of all this," says Pelters. "They come here to spend their vacation time, but they cannot rest." Pelters, who owns a real estate company, says the uncertainty caused by the law has sunk prices at Empuriabrava like a stone. "They've declined 30 percent more than in other coastal areas affected by the crisis," he says.