Constitutional Court puts the brakes on Castilla y León project

The Environment City, to be constructed on protected land in Soria, has already cost 52 million euros, leading opposition to decry "wastefulness" of PP assembly

The energy domes of the Castilla y León regional government's Environment City projected.
The energy domes of the Castilla y León regional government's Environment City projected.L. S.

The Constitutional Court has struck down a law passed in 2007 by the regional government of Castilla y León to build a mammoth complex on protected land in Soto de Garray (Soria).

The project, called Ciudad del Medio Ambiente (Environment City), is already halfway built at an expense of 52 million euros of public money. Original plans included seven singular buildings erected on protected land by the Duero river, the ultimate purpose of which remains unclear.

The Constitutional Court has now ruled that the regional government, then with a Popular Party (PP) majority, bypassed the courts and citizens in passing the law, since the latter were unable to appeal against the development.

"The politicians who approved this have to be criminally accountable. This will remain a monument to wastefulness."

"The politicians who approved this have to be criminally accountable. This will remain a monument to wastefulness."

In March 2007, an odd legal document was passed: there were two pages' worth of Official Gazette text explaining the motives of the project, a five-line article, two provisions and a 164-page annex detailing everything down to the kilowatts of the light bulbs.

By wording it as a law, Castilla y León was effectively preventing citizens and environmental groups from appealing through the ordinary court circuit. This meant security from legal setbacks, such as when the provincial High Court of Castilla y León cancelled another major development slated to go up in a protected pine forest in Las Navas del Marqués (Ávila). The regional government has used similar techniques to build a ski slope with artificial snow on burnt land in Valladolid, a dump in the same province, and a ski resort in Palencia.

A year ago, the Constitutional Court also repealed a law passed by the Murcia regional government to build 9,000 homes on a pristine shoreline. Although that decision came 11 years after the law was passed, construction work had not yet begun. Not so in Soria where diggers were swiftly deployed, erecting the structures of the energy domes. The white, modern-looking buildings, which represent orange slices, are located near the Duero in a protected grove. Last March the regional government put a freeze on construction of the buildings but said it would keep going with the rest of the complex, including an industrial park where there are barely any tenants.

The official goal was to create "environmental, territorial, social, economic and scientific criteria to define a contemporary, sustainable settlement." In theory, the complex was going to create 1,000 jobs and house 4,000 people.

The 709 parking spaces have electrical power recharge outlets although there are no cars. Not one of the 788 environmentally friendly homes has been built yet, but the streets already have fiber optic connections. There is one biomass plant in operation.

The Constitutional Court notes that the law "rezoned part of the land declared as specially protected and turned it into land fit for building." The use of a law prevents control by the courts in the manner other development plans are bound, the court added.

The High Court also criticized "the lack of proportion displayed by the legislator" by using a law for this project, especially considering the problems it created in the town of Garray, the population of which was going to shoot up from 500 to 4,500.

Oscar López, who was then secretary general of the Socialist Party in Castilla y León, celebrated the recent legal decision. "They said they were going to create 1,000 jobs, and when we appealed they accused us of hurting employment and development in the area. Now we see that it was just another way of sinking public money," he said, adding that the Environment City had a political goal: attacking the mayor of Soria, the Socialist Carlos Martínez. After the ruling was made public, Martínez asked PP leaders to accept political responsibility for what he termed as "wastefulness."

A spokeswoman for the government of Castilla y León said it was too early to issue an opinion on the ruling.

The person behind the project - which initially included other theme-based developments along the Duero - was former regional deputy premier María Jesús Ruiz, now a senator for the PP. Asked about it, Ruiz declined any role in the project: "This is a law by the assembly of Castilla y León. Call them. I was a commissioner in a government with a program."

The Environment City is a twist in the plot of the real estate bubble in Spain. Not only is it a development built on protected land, but it is also driven by a public authority, with the alleged goal of protecting the environment. Although for years the project had support in Soria because of the promises of employment and a 100-million-euro investment, lately it has drawn criticism: the government had earmarked 11 million additional euros for the development while at the same time denying the Soria hospital 34 million euros for extension work.

In April, development manager Nicolás Alonso stated that an adverse ruling by the Constitutional Court would not change anything: "In any case, no matter how this turns out, there's no going back on it."

Luis Giménez, an architect and member of the green group Asden, which fought the project, says it is now time to go after the people behind it: "The politicians who approved this have to be criminally accountable. This will remain a monument to wastefulness."

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