Costa Blanca News 23 - 29 Dcember 2011
Concrete jungle case dismissed
Landmark verdict means land-grab victory for expats who fought to save their homes...and won
By Samantha Kett
UNTIL now, thousands of homeowners faced with being stripped of everything under the Valencian region's controversial land laws have felt like crusaders of a lost cause. Far from being a dark decade in Spain's history, the so-called land-grab is, sadly, alive and well, albeit diluted somewhat by the property market crash.
But a group of retired expats on the Pedramala 2 urbanisation, who were facing the prospect of being forced to pay five- or six-figure sums for electricity, roads and mains water that other property owners would benefit from, and losing homes they have owned for decades if they were unable to stump up the cash, have just had an early Christmas present: their battle to save the roofs over their heads has been won.
Water under the bridge – for now, anyway
When Construcciones Benimarco, S.L. was given the job of building 75 luxury villas on the four-and-a-half-acre stretch of verdant, unspoilt countryside on the Benissa-Calpe border, it would mean chunks of land taken away from several residents and a bill of anything up to a quarter of a million to pay for the new residential complex.
But every new development needs to jump through a series of hoops before the first brick is laid, including obtaining a favourable report from the water supply and rivers authority, the Júcar Hydrographic Confederation (CHJ) to show that there would be sufficient mains water for all the properties built.
AUN vice-president, Chuck Svoboda, and members Ivar, Günter, Bob and Ecky found that the CHJ report had never been applied for.
They wrote to the two main ombudsmen, the Síndic de Greuges and the Defensor de Pueblo, as well as MP for Alicante, Encarna Llinares, and the CHJ itself.
Whilst many of their letters remained unanswered, others got the attention their authors had hoped for and, with the help of a solicitor, the case was heard in the Supreme Court of Justice this week.
A judge's verdict that the planned urbanisation was unlawful, due to the absence of the report, meant the 16 villas on the Pedramaa 2 complex – and the bank balances of their owners – have been saved.
Homeowners to pay between 20,000 and 200,000 euros each
The Costa Blanca News spoke to some of the Pedramala 2 residents who fought against the system until, finally, their voices were heard and the land-grabbers forced to eat their words.
Although they have all had a major part to play, every one of the indefatigable, international team of expatriate homeowners in the area say the advice and support provided by Chuck Svoboda, vice-president of Abusos Urbanísticos NO (AUN) has been invaluable, and that it was really the unstoppable Günter Klasen whose resolve and dedication led to their winning the battle.
German-born Ecky, who lives with Canadian artist wife Patricia, says his Pedramala 2 villa is a family heirloom – his dad, who first explored Spain on a motorbike in 1934 and spent his holidays, along with Ecky's mum, in Spain since the 1950s, bought the house in 1991.
Ecky and Patricia, whose parents have had holiday homes in Ibiza and Calpe since the 1970s, have lived in their Pedramala 2 home since leaving California after working there for 13 years.
Ivar Fitje, a self-confessed 'Norwegian nomad' whose job as a financial executive took him to more than 10 countries, including Madrid in the early 1990s, has three children who are fluent in Spanish and one married to a Spaniard. All this made the country the obvious choice for his retirement, but with the Pedramala 2 issue hanging over local residents' heads for nearly a decade, it has been anything but a peaceful life since he hung up his spreadsheet and calculator.
“If the urbanisation had been built, many homeowners would be subject to loss of land or a chunk of their houses, and they would all have had to pay a substantial contribution towards the cost of infrastructure. The larger the plot you have, the harder you're hit,” explains Ivar.
“An owner of an average Pedramala 2 house of, say, 150 to 200 square metres, would probably escape the land grab, but would have to pay urbanisation costs of easily 50,000 to 70,000 euros.
“Some homes of around 400 square metres on 5,000-square metre plots would easily see a fifth of their land confiscated, and the contribution demanded of them at least 150,000 to 200,000 euros.
“Not getting any compensation for loss of land which is legally yours and fully registered for years is hard to digest – as is paying enormous amounts for infrastructure we do not need. Let us also remember that several residents here bought their houses 20 or 30 years ago, perhaps for as little as 10,000 euros, and do not have the financial resources to make such payments.
“As a result, they could be forced to pay by handing over their houses.”
“We already have roads and utilities – why should we have to pay again?”
Former offshore oil and gas diver Bob Nix, 64, left London for Benissa at the age of 39 and has never looked back. But in his quarter of a century living in his Pedramala 2 villa, he has seen the area targeted by unscrupulous developers on more than one occasion.
“About 15 years ago, possibly more, the residents employed a solicitor to oppose the plan. We won on that occasion, too,” reveals Bob.
Of the 16 villas in the area, seven are permanent residences and nine are holiday homes, and their owners are 'not exactly young', Bob explains.
“Fortunately, some of them are wealthy enough to fight the plans in every way possible, but determination is also essential. Günter supplies that. And Chuck's advice has been priceless.”
Bob says the root of the problem is land laws that 'only benefit the developers', allowing them to 'steal' land and have the infrastructure for their new urbanisations paid for by others.
As Chuck once described what was then the LRAU and is now the LUV, it is 'a licence to write cheques with other people's money'.
“These laws certainly do not benefit the villa owners, who happen to reside in parts that later become 'urbanisable' and, in the process, turn areas of natural beauty into housing estates.
“Our district has already been 'urbanised' – many years ago, in fact, when our villas were first built. We have roads, water and electricity already. Why should we have to pay again?”
Bob adds that when he first moved to the area, a villa would be built on a 5,000-square metre plot and the builder would be responsible for ensuring it had the necessary utilities and facilities, which the new owner would fund. These costs were included within the purchase price. Like this, he says, controlled and sustainable development was possible.
The court case, he says, shows local councils' 'disregard' for water regulations. Additionally, Bob points out that there has been no environmental impact study, which is also required by law.
“It wouldn't be difficult to carry out. You only have to look at the urbanisation below Pedramala 2, Racó de Galeno, a wooded valley carved up with roads and divided into over a 100 plots. The work started a decade ago, and all that we have now is a load of roads with one completed villa and two abandoned shells.
“And the Spanish justice system is totally inadequate in relation to land-grab issues. It took four years for the Pedramala 2 case to get to court!”
Bob believes that the black cloud which descended over the property market three years ago did in fact have a silver lining as far as Pedramala 2 residents are concerned: had the housing industry not crashed, the urbanisation would have been completed, homeowners relieved of their life's savings and a large chunk of their houses, a stunningly attractive rural area buried in concrete and, had the court ruled in the residents' favour, it would have been rather like a death-row pardon just minutes after the hanging.
What does the future hold?
As was to be expected, the burning topic at Wednesday's council meeting was the Supreme Court verdict and what, if anything, could be done about it.
An appeal seems unlikely, since the ruling was based upon interpretation of the facts, and mayor Juan Bautista Roselló admitted during the meeting that 'in previous cases', the report from the CHJ was 'never taken into account'.
The underlying message is that the council had hoped to cut corners, and did not expect to be caught out.
Roselló commented that the verdict 'is what it is', suggesting a reluctant acceptance of the court's stance.
But Günter says: “They committed some serious errors in the verdict which could, in the event of an appeal, mean severe problems for the other side.”
Aside from an appeal, the only other option open to Benissa council is to apply for the missing CHJ report and, if favourable, push ahead with the development.
But this begs the question as to why any town on the Costa Blanca needs more new houses when so many already stand empty, having never had an owner in the five or seven years since they were built, and literally thousands of homeowners in every town over the course of a year have their properties repossessed due to the impossibility of finding a job, leaving banks with more homes on their hands than they care to count and are struggling to auction off.
Residents of Pedramala 2 are crossing their fingers that common sense will prevail and that this resounding victory is just the first of many more against the unjust and unscrupulous application of regional land law.
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