In Spain, a Tide Of Development

Land Laws on Mediterranean Coast Enable a Boom but Bring Corruption

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

BENISSA, Spain -- Belgians Lieve de Cleippel and Hubert van Bel have owned their 150-year-old house on the Spanish Mediterranean for 20 years. Perched on a hilltop surrounded by palm trees and seven acres of terraced vineyards and groves, they long felt insulated from the helter-skelter development that has ravaged vast stretches of Spain's coast.

Last November, when told the local government had approved a new development plan for their area, the couple went to town hall for a look. They were stunned at what they discovered.

"They were going to demolish everything" on their property, said van Bel, 59. "We were going to lose more than half of our land, and on top of that we were going to be charged 700,000 euros," about $900,000, in fees for new roads, drainage, streetlights and other amenities. "We were horrified."

Van Bel said he was never notified of the rezoning -- which was intended to make way for construction of 17 houses -- or given a chance to oppose it. And it was all legal under local development laws.

Their legal nightmare, which is still being played out, is just one example of rampant development pressure along much of Spain's 3,100-mile coast. Environmentalists say a 10-year building boom is fueling corruption and mafia activity, destroying ecosystems and leaving much of the coast an eyesore.

About 3 million houses have been started or built in Spain in the past four years, including 812,000 in 2005, with as many as half of them along the coast. By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of all European construction is occurring in Spain.

The boom is being fueled partly by the demand of northern Europeans for retirement homes on the Mediterranean. Drawn by the temperate climate, relatively inexpensive housing and the ease of avoiding taxes by conducting business under the table, foreigners now account for 70 percent of the population in some Spanish towns.

"They are legalizing illegal buildings, they are urbanizing the entire area. And now they are occupying the sea, literally," by expanding harbors and marinas in environmentally sensitive areas, said Miguel Angel Garcia, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund. "These days we don't have any development plans. We just build."

A July report by the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace found that hundreds of thousands of new houses and hotel rooms, 40,000 new boating slips and hundreds of golf courses are planned in areas that are suffering the worst sustained drought in 50 years. In the four regions of Spain that hug the Mediterranean coast, 273 towns with 4.3 million residents have no wastewater treatment.

Faced with complaints by the European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, that the country's public beaches were too polluted, Spain removed 365 of them from its list of approved swimming areas rather than clean them up.

Dozens of criminal investigations are underway. In the holiday town of Marbella, about 35 miles up the coast from Gibraltar, 30,000 houses are in condemnation hearings for allegedly being built illegally, including 1,600 on parkland.

Earlier this year, police launched a sting operation, freezing 1,000 bank accounts and seizing more than $3 billion in assets -- including luxury villas, thoroughbred horses, fighting bulls and 275 works of art -- from politicians, attorneys and other development and planning officials accused of accepting bribes in exchange for granting building permits and rezonings. The town's mayor and 10 other people were arrested; two previous mayors were found guilty of corruption.

The building boom has helped create an underground economy that has attracted billions of euros in illicit funds, experts say. Today, 26 percent of all the 500-euro notes circulating in the European Union are in Spain, according to the Spanish Finance Ministry, largely because of money laundering and corruption in the construction industry, experts believe. Spaniards have dubbed the notes "Bin Ladens" because they know they exist but no one can find them.

"Basically, drug traffickers in the south of Spain have investments in the real estate and development sector because it is an easy sector to launder money with no questions asked," said Alejandra Gomez-Cespedes, a lecturer at Malaga University's Andalusian Institute of Criminology.

In Altea, a seaside resort about 60 miles south of Valencia, an entire cliff has been embedded with concrete, and progressively newer apartment buildings have leapfrogged over older ones to the water's edge.

A new jetty is being extended through a 12-acre underwater forest of Posidonia sea grass in order to double the harbor's capacity to 1,064 boat slips. The government ordered the grasses to be transplanted elsewhere, but 85 percent of the relocated forest has died, according to the World Wildlife Fund's Garcia.

Some of the harshest criticism has targeted the Valencia region's so-called land-grab law, which turns over control of private property to developers, giving them legal means to compel the owners to relinquish the land or buy it back.

"If there is a social purpose for developing land, that predominates over the fundamental right in European law -- the rights of private property," said Charles Svoboda, a retired Canadian diplomat and president of Abusos Urbanisticos NO, a 30,000-member group formed to protect landowners.

The law was investigated by the European Parliament after 15,000 people, many of them retirees from elsewhere in Europe, signed petitions asking for relief. The European Commission has asked Spain to modify the law.

"Let's call it what it is -- land robbery," said Michael Cashman, an English member of the European Parliament who led a panel that investigated Valencia's development laws. "What we are seeing is 18- to 20,000 breaches of individual human rights."

The government of Valencia asked that The Washington Post submit its questions about the laws in writing, but then did not respond to them.

In an interview in Madrid, Spanish Vice President María Teresa Fernández de la Vega said the federal government had little control over housing and urban planning, which she said was in the hands of local authorities. But she said the government has endorsed new zoning regulations to combat land speculation and has budgeted $77 million to buy ecologically sensitive coastal areas and protect them from development.

In Benissa, a town of 12,000 residents about 50 miles south of Valencia, the case of Lieve de Cleippel and Hubert van Bel has been dormant for several months. But Mayor Juan Bautista Rosello said that it would be revisited, under a revised law that would withdraw the threat of demolition of the couple's house but press forward with plans to "urbanize" much of the property under the town's master plan.

He denied that Valencia's law allowed towns to take land. Instead, he said, towns "convert agricultural land into developable land" and then charge the owners for the cost of urbanizing it.

In the case of the Belgian couple and their 7.5 acres, Rosello said, they will be granted about 2.5 acres around their house, with the remaining five acres being declared urban. Under the new law, they will be assessed roughly $1 million in charges for infrastructure improvements, he said.

If the couple does not want those five acres to be developed, Rosello said, they must pay the charges, like everyone with property zoned urban in the new plan. Their other option would be to sell the land to the developer.

"I don't see it as a battle" between public and private interests, Rosello said, but rather a balance between the two. "They're not going to have land taken away with nothing in exchange. . . . In exchange they get land for building houses," which he said would be more valuable.

"We didn't do this for an investment, we did it to live here," said de Cleippel, 56, walking around the outside of the colonial-style house with expansive patios, lush gardens and dramatic views of the sea about a mile away. "We just want to keep our property, not have it taken away to build 17 houses on it."

Correspondent Molly Moore in Madrid contributed to this report.



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