Luxury Resort in Spain Must Be Demolished, Court Finds

Luxury Resort in Spain Must Be Demolished, Court Finds

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

The four-star hotel resort, called Marina Isla de Valdecañas, was built on an island in a reservoir in the region of Extremadura, about a two-hour drive from Madrid, and became a popular weekend getaway for businesspeople and celebrities.

It was backed by regional politicians in Extremadura, who had hoped that the development would bring much-needed investment to the area. Long ranked as the poorest region of mainland Spain, Extremadura has struggled to build its tourism industry, which has been an engine of growth in other parts of the country.

But, environmental groups sued before it was even built to stop it, on the grounds that the resort had been constructed in a protected area, and last week won a crucial victory against the government and the developer, José María Gea.

After the decision was released, the president of the regional government of Extremadura, Guillermo Fernández Vara, said at a news conference that he would “try to save the Valdecañas project.”

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

“Unfortunately, the thinking in Spain is that anything that has been built should then remain, whatever might have been wrong or illegal with the project,” José María Trillo-Figueroa Calvo, a lawyer representing Ecologistas en Acción, said in a phone interview.

The history of the Valdecañas was rocky from the start. As soon as the project got the green light from the regional authorities in 2007, environmentalists went to court because the area was part of a network of protected spaces called Natura 2000, a European Union designation intended to safeguard endangered species, including migrating birds, and their habitats.

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

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

The Supreme Court decision last week said all of it should come down, and that the golf course should be returned to its natural state.

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

In the southern province of Almería, a 15-year court battle is being waged over whether to demolish a huge beachfront hotel that was built in a nature reserve. On the southeastern coast of Spain, extensive tourism 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 clash with preservation issues.

In Cornwall, in southwestern England, the local council told a hotel last week that it has six months to tear down beachfront structures, including nine meeting rooms, that were 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 reinstate the land “to its original levels, gradients and condition.”

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

Derek Thomas, the member of Parliament for West Cornwall said on Twitter, “This is good news, but it’s ridiculous that it has taken so long to enforce such an obvious breach of planning conditions.”

The Spanish decision can still be appealed to the Constitutional Court, and Mr. Fernández Vara said that his administration would probably do that, without specifying what new arguments could be presented.

He called it a “paradox” that the European Union wanted to preserve rural villages and towns, while setting environmental protection standards that he said limited economic development in thinly populated areas.

“We face the huge challenge of fighting against depopulation in areas that are losing people because of the excessive protection that they get,” he said.

But environmentalists in Spain hailed the Supreme Court’s decision. “We have fueled a culture of legal impunity, which explains why so much construction has gone ahead in places of very special environmental value,” Mr. Trillo-Figueroa Calvo said.

Aina J. Khan contributed reporting.

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