In Spain, a Tide Of Development

Hubert van Bel and Lieve de Cleippel say a developer planned to build 17 houses on their land, which the town rezoned for urban development without notifying them.
Hubert van Bel and Lieve de Cleippel say a developer planned to build 17 houses on their land, which the town rezoned for urban development without notifying them. (John Ward Anderson - Twp)
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.


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