Judges save (for now) virgin shores

Constitutional Court ruling saves unspoiled stretch of Murcia's coastline Authorities rezoned land to allow for Europe's largest tourism development

Cala Blanca beach in the Marina de Cope reserve.
Cala Blanca beach in the Marina de Cope reserve.SANTI BURGOS

In a case that highlights the conflict between regional and local interests versus the protection of the environment for the national good, the Constitutional Court has ruled null and void amendments made more than a decade ago to Murcia's land laws designed to allow for the construction of a vast tourist resort on unspoilt coastline there.

The case dates back to March 2001, when, in the final stages of the land legislation's passage through Murcia's assembly, the Popular Party-controlled regional government introduced amendments rezoning some 11,000 hectares of protected land between Águilas, Mazarrón and Lorca, as well as Cabo Cope and the Sierra de la Almenara, reducing its status from that of regional park to Place of Community Interest (LIC), which allows for a wider range of uses.

The amendments were introduced to facilitate the construction of Europe's largest tourism development, the Marina de la Cope. In addition to homes for 60,000 people, the project includes 22,000 hotel beds, five golf courses and an artificial marina with room for 2,000 boats. Costing more than 3.8 billion euros, the complex would occupy 2,156 hectares, 1,843 of which lost their protected status in 2001.

The regional government actively supported the proposals, citing the economic benefits it would bring. It argued that the Marina de Cope scheme falls within the scope of its reclassified status as being of regional interest. The socialist PSOE council of Lorca and the PP conservatives of nearby Águilas also support the plan.

Iberdrola had mooted building a nuclear plant there in the 1970s

Águilas town council said on its website that Marina de Cope would "increase tourism in the south of Murcia," and "adhere to a model of quality development and sustainability." But when the Socialist Party took over the national government in 2004, it threw its weight behind opponents of the plan. After a variety of legal maneuvers over the years, the Constitutional Court's ruling now returns the original protected status of the land.

The government together with local groups made up of environmentalists and concerned residents first appealed to judges at Murcia's regional High Court to stop the rezoning required to allow the project to go ahead. Now, environmentalist groups that fought the project fear that a scaled-down version of the project might still go ahead, and have called for it to be definitively abandoned.

The regional government has said that it will respect the Constitutional Court's decision, but that it still wants to develop the area. "We will make the necessary modifications, but it doesn't affect the project, because we haven't started to build," a spokesperson said.

Commenting on the top court's decision and the possibility that some kind of scaled-down project will go ahead in another area along the coast, the head of the regional government of Murcia, Ramón Luis Valcárcel, said last week: "It's not the end of the world; it will not affect the region in the least because it refers to a part of the territory on which there is nothing."

This ruling freezes the project and the land will once again be protected"

But the ongoing economic crisis and collapse of the construction sector make the presentation of alternative plans unlikely, given that the success of this kind of tourist development is dependent on sales and interest from property developers. There are currently more than 700,000 empty completed homes on the Spanish property market that have never been occupied, as well as around 300,000 on the resale market.

Within the Cabo de Cope-Puntas de Calnegre Park, there are eight habitats protected by the European Union. The area is also home to one of the few remaining populations of spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) in Spain. The vegetation is similar to that found at Cabo de Gata, 100 kilometers to the south: dry scrub, semi-desert conditions. However, the area is attractive to construction companies as it contains some of the few remaining stretches of Mediterranean coastline untouched by development.

A large part of the area in which Marina de Cope is projected was owned by energy company Iberdrola, which had mooted building a sea-water cooled nuclear power station there in the 1970s, a move that helped keep the property developers at bay. Then in 2004, the company sold 40 percent of the 328 hectares it owned at Cope to three savings banks - Cajamurcia, Bancaja and Caja Castilla-La Mancha - for 36 million euros.

In 2007, a multi-million-euro dual carriageway was opened, making access to the area easier. Hugging the Mediterranean coast, the road passes close to where the vast complex was due to be sited. Julia Martínez of Ecologists in Action has no doubts the highway is primarily intended to improve access to Marina de Cope: "They wanted to build this road for the largest tourist resort in Europe. It conflicts with the sustainability of the coast."

A deal to build a new international airport 15 kilometers from the city of Murcia was also made in 2007, but nothing came of it.

Eduardo Salazar, a lawyer working for Ecologists in Action, and who has been involved in the fight against Marina de Cope, said he was pleased at the Constitutional Court's decision: "We are overjoyed. We believe that the ruling freezes the project and that the land will once again be protected. The regional government cannot interfere with protected land."

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