Algarrobico & the perils of decentralization

In his latest blog entry, Winnipeg-based urbanist Christopher Leo asks, URBAN GROWTH AND MULTI-LEVEL GOVERNANCE: ARE STRONGER LOCAL GOVERNMENTS ALWAYS THE ANSWER? Here Chris examines examples of successful planning in Ontario that challenge his usual enthusiasm for decentralization.

As I told him, I'm glad to see that he continues to rethink his positions, keeping from getting locked in a box of his own devising. Anyone who has been watching urban misdevelopment in Spain is aware of the perils of extreme decentralization of authority. In our immediate vicinity, our little town (pop. 7000) of Carboneras has been making national headlines over a hotel allegedly (and I believe in fact) constructed on protected parkland and onto the supposedly protected coast. Aspects of approval authority are split among municipality, provincial government (in this case, province of Almería), and the Junta, or regional government, of Andalucía (a region covering seven provinces including Almería), above all of which is the national government and its several, sometimes bickering, ministries.

Here in Carboneras, town hall appears to have fiddled with the map of the park boundaries so as to evade regulations, with the connivance of the provincial government, and granted all the necessary permits for a hotel developer (including participation of George Soros) to build the monster. What was in it for the locals was, first, opening up more of the surrounding parkland to their own development projects (hotels, golf courses in this waterless land, luxury summer homes), and secondly (useful for political purposes) the employment opportunities the new hotel would supposedly bring (the wives of fishermen could become chambermaids), as well as the shorter-term building contracts of local companies. So they tore into the mountain and built the multistoried hotel on Algarrobico beach, practically up to the water line.

Only Greenpeace and a local pro-ecology group raised a cry while this thing was going up. Finally, when the structure was all up and they were just finishing the interiors, planning to open for business this past summer, the central government took notice. In a whole series of court decisions (each one challenged and requiring a new hearing) the whole operation has been declared illegal, the junta (Andalucian regional government) swallowed its embarrassment and demanded the thing be torn down, and found provisions in Spanish law saying they did not have to compensate the builders because their permits (never before challenged by the junta) were all illegal. Carboneras town hall, the mayor in particular, refuses to admit defeat however and they and the developers are still mounting challenges.

For a video of the Greenpeace action (12 August 2007) where they painted the word "Illegal" (ilegal in Spanish) on the façade of the hotel, see this article in El Mundo.

On a personal note, Susana & I are now in New York City, until Dec. 14, so I'll be reporting from here when I get a chance. The interruption of my blogging was due mainly to having to give all our attention to finishing the building project in Carboneras (see previous blog for photos) and getting ready for this trip.

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