The law that protects the coastline is threatened by five bills - Nearly 23 years after its adoption, the groups affected are claiming victory.
El Pais 22 Feb 2011 Rafael Mendes ( translation Google / Cliff Carter)
The Coastal Law ( Ley de Costas) is injured, perhaps mortally wounded. It may fall this year or the next. Perhaps the parliamentary term will run out before the legal changes, that aim to undermine it, are set up.. But that's not the most relevant point.
The wave of protest against the law, passed in July 1988, plus the pressure to maintain the occupation of the coast, is so great and comes from so many fronts, that it will fall sooner rather than later. That is at least the impression of environmentalists, the people adversely affected by the law, and most of the political parties.
The collection of legislation in place to amend the Coastal Act is broad. Some initiatives do not have much depth, others are very specific, but together they reveal the pressures that the Coastal Law is under.
In December 2008, the Ministry of the Environment used the Maritime Act (Navigacion Maritima) to try to allow any houses that were built legally on the beach, before the 1988 regulation, to be bought and sold. This reform is still “stuck” in the parliament.
The Ombudsman criticized the opacity of the process, but the technique was repeated. In August came the Law of Ports (Puertos) , which eased the conditions for turning lighthouses into hotels and restaurants.
There's more: the Socialist government ( PSOE) has used the Coastal Act as a bargaining chip with the Basque Nationalists (PNV) by using the Law of Sustainable Economy (Economia Sostenible) to support an amendment to reform the Hydrocarbons Law (Ley de Hidrocarburos) thereby elongating the concession to a refinery in the public domain. The goal is to allow the refinery Petronor, installed in the marshes of Muskiz (Vizcaya), whose concession expires in 2012, to remains in place after that date. Petronor´s president, the former leader of the PNV, Josu Jon Imaz, took months looking for ways to circumvent the Coastal Law
In the working groups to draft a Law on the Sustainability of Cities (Sostenibilidad de las Ciudades) , under the Secretariat of State for Housing, they considered the possibility of relaxing the law in order to make the stock of housing on the coast more attractive to foreign buyers , according to sources close to the negotiations. However the law will not include any step in this direction, according to a spokesperson for Housing.
Pedro Antonio Ríos the Director general of the Coast ,in the Ministry of the Environment, is not comfortable in justifying these changes: "Changing the Coastal Act through the Sustainable Economy Act does not seem rigorous , I think it would be better to say directly what you want to do with the law. " Rios, with lots of parliamentary experience, calls for a distinction between his work (in the coastal department) and the acceptance of reforms by the PSOE
"The costal department has not made any amendments, it will have been the parliament. If it is done to get the budget approved it seems good to me. "
Rios argues that we should not exaggerate the controversy: "94% of the implementation of the Coastal Act has been effectively done and now we must solve the remaining 6% as we will do according to the agreement. We do not alter the application of the law to such situations, we manage it strictly in terms of the territory. "
Environmentalists complain that " some of those who defend the Coastal Act are driving amendments through the back door in order to exempt factories", as summarized by Pilar Marcos, in charge of Coasts at Greenpeace.
The opposition goes further. PP (conservatives) and CiU (Catalan nationalist) talk openly of changing the standard. In the eight years of the PP government they applied the law without reforms. Both parties introduced bills in Congress in Autumn 2010 and lost by one vote in the Committee on the Environment.
The PSOE rustled up enough deputies to knock the bills down.
But the struggle did not end there. On 9 February 2011, the Senate approved two bills to consider amendments to the text.
CiU proposed the exclusion from the law of something they called "navigable cities," referring to the Marina of Empuriabrava, on the coast of Girona, a development with private moorings next to the villas, and also to maintain some urban areas outside the scope of the law.
The PP managed to get approval for another proposal to compensate the owners of factories built in the public domain before 1988. The PP, which for years has criticized the application of the law, has now moved on to challenge the law itself. According to the PP spokesman for the environment, Carlos Floriano, his proposal is "to open clear paths in order to solve problems that affect many Spanish citizens and thus to overcome the legal uncertainty."
The two proposals must now go to Congress to be discussed , but there the CiU and the PP will find it more difficult than in the Senate to get a majority. It is possible that the initiatives will fizzle out without prospering.
The spokesperson of the PP in the Senate, Leticia Diaz, said on the podium: "The wording of this law allows arbitrary application, it is fraught with indeterminate legal concepts." The law does not set a distance to define the public domain, but uses geographical concepts such as beaches, "the limit to where the waves reached in the worst known storm, the marshes, swamps and estuaries. "
Houses legally constructed in these areas before 1988 receive a concession for 30 years, extendable to 60, as a unique case of expropriation that the Constitutional Court upheld in 1991. The initial period of concession that was seen as non extendable, begins to expire in 2018. Owners already feel the imminent risk that their property will belong to the state and that they may be demolished.
Jose Ortega, a lawyer and spokesman for the National Platform of People Affected by the Spanish Coastal Law PNALC , is convinced that there is no going back: "When we started in 2007, it seemed that this was a battle of señoritos (middle class dandies ?), but we have shown that it is not . We'll have to see how the law will be reformed , but it is only a matter of time.
We do not want construction all along the coast, but that citizens individual rights are respected. "
Some of the autonomous Parliaments are waging their own war. Canaries and Galicia passed their laws against the state legislation. The ministry appealed to the Constitutional court on both occasions. The same announcement of appeal followed another Galician law, but finally the appeal was rejected after an agreement was reached with the regional government.
Why now? Why a law in force for more than 20 years suddenly gets such a direct attack? Ortega argues that until 2004 the law was applied with, what he defines as, “common sense”. He claims that it was the arrival of the PSOE government and of Cristina Narbona to the Ministry of the Environment, which changed everything, in applying the law with such force.
The numbers show an increase. Between 1988 and 2003, they defined 4,659 kilometres of coastal public domain -the procedure to separates the public and private area of the coast is called “deslindar”,. Between 2004 and 2010, they defined 3,880 more kilometres, according to figures from the PSOE. They have now defined 95% of the coastline and the forecast of the Ministry of the Environment is to reach 100% by the end of the legislature.
Rios criticizes the PP and the CiU " they are trying to cleverly alter the law." "The (CiU) want to create something amusing , “navigable cities”, so as to look good in Empuriabrava (Cataluña). And the PP wants to keep private areas in the public domain, a concept prohibited by the Constitution."
The law is undoubtedly controversial. It is hard not to sympathize with those who have purchased a beach house without the notary nor the bank nor anyone else warning them that it could be in the public domain. After the Coastal department’s involvement they discover that they can not sell the property. Many of those affected are foreigners, mainly British and German, and their complaints have led the European Parliament, United Kingdom and Germany to criticized the coastal law. Sufferers claim that Spanish beaches are dotted with hotels, eg the Algarrobico whose exploitation has been stopped over the last five years by an appeal from environmentalists, while their chalets are expropriated.
Rios admits that there are problems with the registration of houses on the beach that never should be able to get the papers: " Yes, there has been property registering on the coast, but not only the coast, also along the rivers. It is true that we have not had the instruments that we should have had. " The Government intends that the land registry should includes coastal public domain data, yet only four provinces have it, "something that a European can not understand.
Pilar Marcos, of Greenpeace, downplays the controversy: "There is a lot of noise. They say that there are 1,500 or 2,000 people affected in Spain. Assuming that is so, that is very few people against the population of the country. Something that does not justify devaluing the law. "
Rita Rodriguez, a lawyer for the NGO WWF, which has won significant litigations against the Coastal Department has a similar approach: "The law seeks to prevent acts of privatization of the sea shore by only allowing occupations that are temporary. Available free land is coveted But that does not mean that we should yield to pressure. People fight to defend their own property, but the vast majority do not comes to defend public property.
" WWF won, in the Supreme Court, a lawsuit against the dumping of residuals by Fertiberia (Huelva and also in 2007 the same court overruled the decision of the Government to build a macro industrial estate on public domain in “Las Alertas” (Royal Port, Cadiz). The sentence has not stopped the socialist executive, it is now preparing a new report to resume work.
Proponents of the law see another cloud: the transfer of powers to the autonomous regions. Catalonia was given the power in its Statute and so was Andalucia. The notice of transfer of competencies to the Junta of Andalusia immediately buried the dispute over the demarcation of the Doñana National Park, which the Coastal Department, under Elena Espinosa, ran in the most protectionist way possible.
Rios defends the transfer: "It is reasonable to expect that the co-decisions will function in all communities but in different ways." The general director defends a management approach based on reaching agreements with mayors and departmental directors and although it is contrary to a legal reform, at this point in time : "The law is not exhausted but has fulfilled a stage."
In the Coast Department of Granada professor Miguel Angel Losada disagrees: "They do not want to face the problem, they prefer to dilute it by giving powers locally, where it is always harder to bring order to the coast. This is a law that should be managed nationally from a distance. all Spanish people will lose by not dealing head on with this complex situation. "