This gives a respite to owners of property facing the imminent threat of demolition.
Important changes to the Ley de Costas were agreed on Friday following a study by the new Minister for Environment, Arias Cañete.
The Ley de Costas is one of the pillars on which the country’s environmental protection laws are based, and will now undergo its first major reform since it came into effect in 1988.
The Ley de Costas has always been hugely controversial. It was an attempt to prevent the country’s beaches being concreted over during the property boom years and save the large swathes of unspoilt beach which still existed at the time. The law made it illegal to build on the sand, which is considered to be maritime-terrestrial public domain, and illegally built front-line houses dating from before the law was passed were automatically to become the property of the State.
But instead of expropriating properties and compensating the owners – something which would have been impossible in practical terms along the 8,000 kilometres of coastline – owners received permission to continue enjoying their properties for a period of 30 years, extendable up to 60 in certain cases, with no fines being imposed. In 1991 the Constitutional Tribunal gave its backing to this “peculiar form of expropriation”, as it defined the practice.
The 30-year-period was due to expire in 2018, after which the State could begin to take over the properties affected and demolish them without paying any compensation. Without this legislation changing, it would have been extremely cheap to take over the properties at any time, since only the remaining years would have to be compensated for. And although it originally seemed a long way off, as the expiry date on their homes crept closer, so the pressure on the owners of beach property grew.
The maximum term for concessions has been extended to 75 years
In some cases concessions were shorter, and as these expired, the properties concerned were demolished, at the cost of the owner.
The regulations have caused huge controversies all over the coasts of Spain, and even the German and British embassies have pressurized the government because many of their citizens who bought front-line properties have been affected.
As a result, the Department of the Environment has decided to extend the maximum term for concessions to 75 years, taking the expiry date to 2063. This ties in with other concession laws regarding water and the property of public administration bodies. In addition, the concessions can be sold on, something which the PSOE government attempted to introduce but which failed to gain the approval of Congress. In effect, the Department of the Environment is postponing the problem.
Owners can now sell and repair their properties.
The changes also permit owners to repair and maintain their properties, something they were prevented from doing before, although they will not be allowed to extend them.
Another problem which the new legislation attempts to address is that of buyers who brought property without knowing it was affected by the Ley de Costas.
Some of those affected by the law have complained that they bought a beach house after the law was introduced, but neither the lawyers nor the official property register warned them that the property was in the public domain. Although the law states that no private property can exist in the public domain, this was not made clear to unwitting purchasers, who found themselves in possession of illegal property, without their lawyers having advised them of the fact.
Demarcation boundaries must be clearly shown on the property registry and Ministry of Environment website
The new law will oblige the Administration to include the demarcation boundaries on the Ministry website and in the property registry, showing where the dividing line between public and private domains in beach areas lies.
Until now this has been published only in the official state bulletin, and the Departamento de Costas has failed to register many of the boundaries in legal documentation.
The doubts now lie in the exact wording of the final text and how it will be applied, but it may be that those who own a house in the public domain could in reality be exempted from the Ley de Costas, despite the fact that the Constitution states that “the state public domain includes in all cases the maritime-terrestrial zone, the beaches, and the sea near the shore”.
State lawyer Arias Cañete has first hand experience of how the demarcation boundaries are established by the Departamento de Costas, and the deficiencies inherent in the system. In his role as Minister he has undertaken a complete reform of environmental legislation and the far-reaching reform of the Ley de Costas was the first item on his agenda to be announced when he took over in the Department of the Environment in January.
The aim of the reform is “to promote effective protection of the coastline and its sustainable use”, but the Department has made it clear that this has to be compatible with “the encouragement of economic activity and the generation of employment, while always respecting fully the integrity and preservation of the maritime-terrestrial public domain”.
The 24-page text says that the current legislation dating from 1988, “has had environmentally unacceptable results”, and adds that since it was brought in, it has caused "distrust and concern."
Different rules will be established for urban and natural beaches.
Although the issue regarding existing homes is one which will affect most expats, there are other measures included.
The Department of the Environment has promised that it will publish subsequent regulations concerning beach use. By means of these regulations different sets of rules will be established for “urban” beaches (those adjoining urban land) and natural beaches, and it is probable that the uses and standards of the former will be more flexible than for the latter.
The law excludes from the public domain “artificial dunes and dead dunes”, which will reduce the public domain in places like Doñana. It also limits the definition of the worst weather events which are used in order to establish the demarcation boundaries: in the past the Departamento de Costas has even used fossil remains to claim that the sea reaches inland, and therefore claimed land as public domain. This will now be possible only if there is “corroborated evidence” of the sea reaching a certain point.
The reform also includes some innovations: for example, the protected margin around saltwater inlets is to be reduced from 100 metres to 20 in “exceptional” cases.
The law also allows for a more relaxed demarcation on the island of Formentera “due to the island’s special geological characteristics”. Furthermore, ten inhabited areas which in theory would form part of the public domain are to be excluded: these are Rocafel (Alicante), Puerto de Santa Pola (Alicante), Marina de Empuriabrava (Girona), Platja d´Aro (Girona), the inlet of Punta Umbría (Huelva), the town centre of Isla Cristina and the Caño del Cepo (Huelva), Pedregalejo and El Palo (Málaga) and Oliva (Valencia).
The new law also allows advertising on the beaches – until now it has been illegal – “as long as it is an integral part of activities which are allowed in the public domain”.
Mining, energy, chemical, petrochemical, textile and paper industries located in the public domain will also have to pass an environmental investigation in order for their concessions to be maintained.
What are the implications for Murcia?
There are many implications for the Region of Murcia following the changes to this law, which will have to be examined over the coming weeks once the final text of the resolutions has been published. However, for many property owners, this is akin to the lifting of a sentence of execution for all those who expected to have to demolish their homes within the next 6 years.
Isabel Borrego, the Secretary of State for Tourism, was in Murcia on Saturday, and said that the draft for the new Ley de Costas “guarantees the preservation of the coastline of Murcia and its attractiveness to tourists, and can help to improve the tourism offered by the Region”. At the same time she says that the new reforms respect the environment, and criticized the current law for “creating legal uncertainty for those who invest on the Spanish coast”.
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