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ENVIRONMENT

Heirs to Defense Ministry ghost airfield slap "for sale" sign on protected areas

One of last pristine stretches of Mar Menor coast offered up to highest bidder

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El Camolií Marina in the southeastern region of Murcia

For decades, the Defense Ministry has preserved an enormous tract of land intact in Mar Menor (Murcia), an area which happens to be a leading example of unbridled development on the Mediterranean coast.

The marina of El Carmolí, which comprises 315 hectares of prime beachfront real estate, was expropriated in the 1940s but the original owners' heirs are about to get it back after taking their appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

The title deed is not yet in their name, and the land is legally protected by five separate levels of environmental safeguarding, yet these owners-to-be are already checking out the property market to see how much they might make on its sale.

So far, they are asking for 116 million euros (negotiable) and seeking foreign investors to build a theme park or something along those lines. The Association of Naturalists of the Southeast (Anse) warns that this would be the finishing touch for the area of Mar Menor.

Environmentalists fear Murcia will roll out red carpet to potential developers

It will not be easy to find a buyer for such a large, expensive piece of real estate as El Carmolí now that credit has run dry. But Anse fears that if one does show up, the government of Murcia will roll out the red carpet. Anse director, Pedro García, lists all the previous, similar cases in this region: "They took away the legal protection from Marina de Cope, they tried it with Calblanque and they managed it with La Zerrichera. If someone shows up, they will not find any hurdles in their way."

The largest saltwater lagoon in Mediterranean Europe is already stretched to the limit. It is surrounded by scores of residential homes and greenhouses, and plays host to almost more jellyfish than holidaymakers.

La Manga del Mar Menor (a narrow strip of land literally called "The Sleeve") was first developed in the 1960s, and later the inland villages began to grow as well. In the middle of it all there was a large green area left untouched: the marina of El Carmolí.

The lawyer for the original owners, Javier Cons, explains that the Defense Ministry expropriated it to build an airfield, but never got around to making anything more than "a dirt track for light aircraft."

It is an exceptional location for luxury resorts, large casinos or theme parks"

In the 1970s, some of the original owners began working the land with permission from the ministry. Two decades ago, they began litigating to get it back in its entirety.

There are over 100 heirs who claim that the expropriation is void because the ministry never used the land for its intended purpose. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, and now they are negotiating with the government over how to implement the ruling.

For the land to revert to them, the heirs must pay a sum resulting from an appraisal that is yet to be done. In the meantime, they have already put the land up for sale.

Juan Antonio Gil, of the company Terrenos Únicos, explains that they are looking for buyers abroad. Gil admits that the environmental protection issue "is a problem."

The owners have offered the land to EuroVegas and Donald Trump

El Carmolí is a Special Bird Protection Area, an EU Site of Community Importance, a Ramsar wetland, a Zone of Special Importance for the Mediterranean (Zepim) and a Natural Protected Site. Aware that it will be difficult to build vast numbers of homes here, they are marketing the land as perfect for "a theme park or something singular." The offer claims that "the protection level for the conservation of the marina is secondary," that it has "a broad percentage of building land and is an exceptional location to build large leisure projects, such as luxury resorts, large casinos or theme parks."

The sellers even claim to have institutional support from INFO, a public agency run by the Murcia regional government. A regional spokesman denied any knowledge of the project, and said that if any reforms are needed the planning will be treated in the same way as any other case.

On August 12, 2011 the owners even offered the land to representatives of EuroVegas, the major casino resort that is the brainchild of casino kingpin Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Sands Casino in Las Vegas.

Madrid and Barcelona are in direct competition with each other to host the project. But according to Gil, the US company turned down the offer because they needed a larger space not so near the sea (it is better to locate casinos in deserted areas so gamblers will not get distracted from the tables and machines). They also offered it to US tycoon Donald Trump.

These are grim times for real estate, but if there is any place where it could make a comeback, it is among Spain's few remaining pristine beaches: Es Trenc, Valdevaqueros and now, El Carmolí.