The current legislation was passed by the Socialist government of Felipe González in 1988, but it has only been widely implemented in the last few years, under another Socialist (PSOE) administration, with far-reaching consequences.
The difference is that the Ministry for the Rural and Marine Environment, formerly known as the Ministry for the Environment, has begun to mark out the boundaries of these so-called designated areas, thereby categorising areas occupied by private individuals as public land. All these areas are now considered Areas of Public Maritime Land. (Dominio Publico Marítimo-Terrestre DPMT).
Loss of Rights
This has meant that perfectly legal, private sector constructions have found themselves in this public space, with the property owners concerned losing their right to ownership of the property.
The state informs those concerned of their new status – or will do so in the future. From that moment, all those affected can appeal to the local Department for Coastlines found within every regional government, and to the relevant courts of law. To date, however, the government has won 98% of the cases.
Just where do the waves reach?
What is an Area of Public Maritime Land (DPMT)? The Coastline Law includes in this section all sand dunes, cliffs and marshes. It even refers literally to the “strip of land which can be reached by the water from the sea (waves) during the heaviest storms ever known”. Therefore in many areas, it extends to points much further inland than normally reached by the tide.
Included in this categorisation are any humid or marshy areas, inland lagoons, and, of course, the beach. The beach is defined as the coastal area with sand, pebbles, or sand dunes, with or without vegetation. It also includes non-private islands or land reclaimed from the sea by natural or artificial means.
A team of biologists, geologists and judges coordinated by the Department for Coastlines decides which areas of land meet the above mentioned specifications. All land which does is marked out and included in the area of public land.
Use without Ownership
What happens to the owners of properties in this designated Area of Public Maritime Land (DPMT)? If they can demonstrate that the construction is legal, they lose their right of ownership, but not their right to use the property.
The Ministry concedes them the right to mortgage their residency rights and pass them on to their heirs. This concession is renewable every 30 years with no payment required.
Right to Reclaim
Nevertheless, the government reserves the right to reclaim the property, if it believes it is in the general interest – as described in the legislation. In such cases, the owner concerned is evicted and the property demolished. To reassure property owners, however, the government has been quick to state that this action has only been taken in a few instances in the past 20 years, and always after an agreement has been reached with the owners of the condemned property and compensation paid prior to the demolition.
If, however, the property has been built on the land illegally and is without any property title, the situation is different. In such cases the final resolution is – as specified by the Coastline Law – demolition of the property. What is more, the property owner will have to pay the costs of the demolition for not having complied with regulations.
Area of Right of Access
The situation, however, is more complicated. Reduction or removal of the rights of property owners is not limited to the Area of Public Maritime Land (DPMT). The Coastline Law increased this area by adding a right of access area extending to 100 metres from the sea shore – where this area of public land ends – except relating to town plans approved before the 1st of January 1988, when the legislation limited this distance to 20 metres. On the other hand, the state can also increase this access area to 200 metres if an agreement is reached with the regional government and the relevant local council.
In this space added to the Area of Public Maritime Land (DPMT), all building from homes to hotels is forbidden. The government has specified its use for gardens, sports areas or other leisure areas.
What happens to buildings already there? They come under the special urban designation of “unauthorised”. The owners maintain their property rights but cannot increase the size of the property, and any construction work must be authorised by the regional government. It is not the state’s intention to demolish properties in such cases.
What can be done?
In all cases, both the owners of properties within Areas of Public Maritime Land (DPMT) and in the adjoining right of access area must receive official notification of the change in their circumstances. After this, they can go to the regional office of the Department for Coastlines in their community to study plans, present a claim, or exercise their rights. As a last resort, they can bring a legal case against the government.