Sacrificial lambs: Are EU threats of action too late for land grab victims?

4th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

Spain's notorious 'land grab law' may be under threat from the EC but, asks Ian Frewer, is this all too late? And what could happen to the property-dependent local economy if the law is repealed?

It began, allegedly, as a laudable plan to promote low-cost housing for local workers, but it evolved into what has been described as the greatest violation of property rights since the fall of communism.

Svoboda leads fight against land grab law

It threatens to ruin a great many people – and to significantly enrich a small minority of developers.

It is the Urban Development Activity Act, the LRAU — better known as the land-grab law, first introduced in Valencia, eastern Spain, in 1994.

The law allows land to be confiscated in order to 'urbanize' rural areas by adding infrastructure like roads, lighting, water pipes and sewerage.

Threats have, on occasions, accompanied orders to hand over land, whose status is changed by town halls which lift building restrictions by reclassifying rural land as urban.
Ironically, the law was passed to crack down on speculators who were holding on to pieces of undeveloped land in the hope that they would sell on later at a higher price.

However, critics claim, developers will often buy cheap, undeveloped rural land that gives them more than 50 percent ownership of a sector designated for urbanization, the remainder of which comprises other people's homes.

They then submit an infrastructure plan to the council that receives quick approval because they can accurately tell the town hall that there is majority consent for the project — the majority being the developer and few, if any, other owners.

Recent developments offer a glimmer of hope for those threatened with the summary confiscation of their land, and the enforced sequestration of their financial assets — or do they?

*quote1*The European Commission has ruled that the Spanish government is violating EU laws on property ownership and human rights; it threatens heavy sanctions and the withdrawal of EU subsidies if the law is not repealed.

It has given the Valencian regional authorities one month to take action.

Charles Svoboda, a retired Canadian diplomat, president of the Abusos Urbanisticos No (No to Urban Abuses) association, which has campaigned against the law since 2002, remains cautious.

"I suspect that they'll simply keep stalling until a new law is ready to be put in place,” he told us, "and then keep on doing much the same thing.

"And anyway, the repeal of the law would affect only future developments, not those already approved."

Expats face loss of dream Spain homes because of land grab law

Svoboda's home in Benissa, near Valencia, now faces a possible new boundary line straight through his swimming pool, and he is pinning his hopes on aspects of the threatened EU sanctions.

"Individual mayors of towns involved may now face personal legal action," he says, "and that may be enough to make them start listening. They could face ruin themselves, if the European human rights court rule against them."

Janice and Graham Fisher are classic victims of the land-grab law.

They bought their home in Tibi, Alicante, in 1996, spent all their time and money improving it, and now face total ruin, as 31 houses are to be constructed on a plot currently holding seven.

All of these may be bulldozed, and the Fishers may well have to pay for the work.

"The town hall have two choices," Fisher told us, "Ruin us, or be ruined themselves by the developers. We’re just sacrificial lambs, and even if Brussels gets the law changed, it won’t help those of us already affected."

Even where owners are not faced with ruin, they may still face major costs, as councils enforce the law to improve their facilities.

*quote2*Roger Ranger of Pinamar, near Javea, faces compulsory 'updating' of his street, plus five others, to include sewers, street lighting, and new roads — in order to complete the infrastructure for a huge new urbanisation behind them.

"We all have septic tanks and house lighting," Ranger told us, "and we don’t need the new roads, but it will cost at le

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