Luxury resort in Spain must be demolished, court says

MADRID — After a 14-year legal battle, Spain’s Supreme Court has ordered the demolition of a luxury hotel and golf resort in Spain’s arid heartland over violations of environmental laws.

The four-star resort, called Marina Isla de Valdecañas, was built on an island in a reservoir in the Extremadura region, about two hours’ drive from Madrid, and has become a popular weekend getaway for men business and celebrities.

He was backed by regional politicians in Extremadura, who hoped the development would bring much-needed investment to the region. Long ranked as the poorest region in mainland Spain, Extremadura has struggled to develop its tourism industry, which has been a driver of growth in other parts of the country.

But environmental groups took legal action even before it was built to stop it, claiming the station had been built in a protected area, and won a crucial victory last week against the government and developer, José Maria Gea.

After the decision was published, the president of the regional government of Extremadura, Guillermo Fernández Vara, told a press conference that he would “try to save the Valdecañas project”.

In a statement, Ecologistas en Acción, one of the two environmental groups that led the legal battle against Valdecañas, said the ruling should also halt other, much larger tourism development. This project, also in Extremadura, called Elysium City, obtained preliminary approval from regional authorities this month.

“Unfortunately, the thinking in Spain is that everything that was built should then stay, everything that could have been wrong or illegal with the project,” said José María Trillo-Figueroa Calvo, a lawyer representing Ecologistas en Acción, in a telephone interview.

The history of the Valdecañas has been turbulent from the start. As soon as the project received the green light from regional authorities in 2007, environmentalists took legal action because the area was part of a network of protected areas called Natura 2000, a European Union designation intended to safeguard the endangered species, including migratory birds, and their habitats.

The golf course and hotel opened in 2010, but a year later environmentalists won their first legal battle, when a regional court ruled against the decision to approve building permits.

Yet, as with many disputed property projects in Spain, the dispute dragged on for another decade. Two years ago, a regional court estimated that removing all buildings in Valdecañas would cost 145 million euros, or about $165 million, including compensation for owners of resort homes.

The Supreme Court ruling last week said all of this should be destroyed and the golf course should be returned to its natural state.

The long-running legal battle over the resort town of Valdecañas is symbolic of Spain’s struggle to balance environmental concerns with a desire to attract tourists, to help regenerate rural towns and villages that have been hollowed out in recent decades as young people gravitated toward cities.

In the southern province of Almería, a 15-year legal battle is underway over whether to demolish a huge beachfront hotel that was built in a nature reserve. On the southeast coast of Spain, extensive tourist developments have also been cited as contributing to damage to the Mar Menor saltwater lagoon.

And it’s not just Spain that has found that using tourism construction as a magnet for investment can run into preservation issues.

In Cornwall, south-west England, the local council told a hotel last week it had six months to demolish seaside structures, including nine meeting rooms, which have been added to host a Group of 7 summit in June. In the enforcement notice issued on Thursday, the council also demanded that the Carbis Bay Hotel restore the land “to its original levels, slopes and conditions”.

The dispute in that case centered on whether the hotel had submitted a planning application only after construction had begun, with local residents expressing concern that the expansion was damaging the coastal landscape and wildlife. The hotel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Derek Thomas, MP for West Cornwall, said on Twitter“It’s good news, but it’s ridiculous that it has taken so long to enforce such an obvious breach of planning regulations.”

Spain’s decision can still be appealed to the Constitutional Court, and Fernández Vara said his administration is likely to do so, without specifying what new arguments might be presented.

He called it a “paradox” that the European Union wants to preserve rural villages and towns, while setting standards for environmental protection which he says limit economic development in sparsely populated areas.

“We face the enormous challenge of fighting depopulation in areas that are losing people due to the excessive protection they receive,” he said.

But Spanish environmentalists welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision. “We have fueled a culture of legal impunity, which is why so much construction has taken place in places of very special environmental value,” Trillo-Figueroa Calvo said.

Aina J. Khan contributed report.

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