“Our world just fell apart,” says Heather Taylor, describing how she and her husband Jeremy felt in October, when they discovered their recently-purchased home by the beach in Spain would never belong to them. “We put all our retirement savings into this, and now are devastated.”
Heather, 52, a teacher on early retirement, and Jeremy, 55, a school principal, both from Belfast, had no idea they were running any risks when they ploughed 215,000 Euros of their savings, plus some borrowing, into a run down, 2-bed semi-detached property looking over the beach and tranquil waters of the Mar Menor in Murcia.
“Everything went so smoothly,” explains Heather. “We negotiated the vendor down from 245,000 Euros, and gave our solicitor Power of Attorney to sign the deeds at the Notary’s. It wasn’t until the end of October, when our architect went to check our plans to rebuild with the town hall, that we first realised something was wrong. Then our world came crumbling down.”
Having used a firm of solicitors to do the legal searches, the Taylors were flabbergasted to discover they had fallen foul of Spain’s notorious ‘Ley de Costas’ or Coastal Law, which nationalised the entire Spanish coastline in July 1988.
The Ley de Costas, or Spanish Coastal Law says….
This law says that the beach or shorefront is public land, along with any property built on it, and imposes various other restrictions on private property within 500 metres of the beach.
Homes built closest to the waterfront, on land classified as public, are expropriated without compensation, even if they were legally built before the law was introduced. In theory owners can get a concession of use (a type of lease) for up to 60 years, but in practise few concessions exist, and those that do cannot be bought or sold (though plans are afoot to change this). When concessions expire properties are supposed to be demolished.
Despite what the law says, most affected owners continue to use their properties more or less as normal, with or without a concession. That is little consolation to the Taylors, however, who can’t rebuild, and can never legally sell. They are trapped.
In theory the Taylor’s situation is impossible. You can’t sell public property, so the notary should have intervened. But this is Spain, where theory and reality don’t always meet. The Taylors even paid thousands of Euros in stamp duty and taxes.
The law was introduced to protect the coast from private control and over-development, and to prevent a ‘wall of cement’ developing along it. On that front, at least, the law has been a spectacular failure.
It has been very effective, however, at creating misery for people like the Taylors. More than 200,000 properties are said to be affected, 15% of them belonging to foreigners (up to 40% in some areas), mainly British and German, according to the National Platform for Owners Affected by the Coastal Law (known as the PNALC, its initials in Spanish), a pressure group with 20,000 members set up to fight the law.
One of the PNALC’s biggest gripes is the haphazard way the law has been implemented. 20 years after the law was introduced the boundary between public and private land has still not been established for large parts of the Spanish coast. A recent drive to implement the law more vigorously has caused an outcry, as many more owners lost their property rights to new boundaries set by the Coastal Department of the Ministry of the Environment.
Alarmingly, the boundaries are drawn up by officials with no judicial oversight. All the government needs to do is declare that your property is in the ‘dominio público marítimo-terrestre’ or public land of the shore, and there is nothing you can do about it.
The law is an ass
The Coastal Law is also an ass because it tries to fix a boundary that is constantly changing.
“According to the law, the public shorefront includes, amongst other things, all areas where the waves have reached in the worst known storms,” explains José Ortega, a lawyer for the PNALC. “It also includes all areas where there is sand, shale or pebbles, whether or not the waves ever reach there.”
That definition makes boundaries highly controversial. Recent storms that have battered the Spanish coast with the biggest waves in living memory mean that, in theory, new boundaries need drawing up that might expropriate many more private homes in dozens of coastal towns and cities. Question marks hang over parts of San Sebastian and Barcelona.
Furthermore, not everyone appears to be equal before the law. “Big developers with powerful contacts break the law with impunity, whilst small owners lose their property rights,” says Ortega.
This inconsistency, and government indifference, enrages victims, who have taken their case to the European Parliament. The PNALC has given evidence to the Parliament’s Petitions Committee for its next report on property and environmental abuses in Spain.
Be careful buying property anywhere near the beach
Regardless of what the EU does or says, buying property near the beach in Spain will be risky for the foreseeable future, so buyers should be extra careful, especially with bargains, whose attractive prices might disguise hidden dangers. There are plenty of properties on the market today that fall foul of the Ley de Costas.
So, before buying within 500 metres of the shore make sure your lawyer checks that the property does not fall foul of this law, and don’t buy in area where the boundary has not yet been drawn.
But what if, like the Taylors, you have already bought a property on land zoned as public? In this case you might be able to get the purchase revoked and your money back through the courts, assuming the vendor is still in Spain. That could, however, involve a grindingly long and costly legal battle.
And what if the government expropriates your property be virtue of a new boundary?
That means you cannot legally sell, though you may be able to get a concession to use it for up to 60 years. Fortunately, even without a concession, it doesn’t look like the government is about to unleash wholesale evictions and demolitions, so you can probably continue to enjoy using it for the foreseeable future.
“They are not evicting people without a concession,” explains Ortega. “The law has created a problem and the government doesn’t know what to do. This could go on for decades, and who knows what will happen in future?”