Even the rich and famous risk losing property in Spain under new laws

Because he is rich and famous there may not be much sympathy with Zorro actor Antonio Banderas losing a huge chunk of land from his Spanish holiday home which has been found to have been built on what is now public beach.

But the actor's plight represents the worst fear for many property owners in Spain as a new wave of demolitions is underway despite promises of an amnesty and various town councils saying that they will try to sort out the mess amicably.

At the heart of the problem is Spain's Ley de Costas, or Coastal Law which effectively nationalised the country's coastline in July 1988. It means that all property on the beach or shorefront is regarded as public property but the boundaries have still not yet been finalised. So more than 20 years since the law was introduced officials are still deciding where it lies.

One reason behind the law was to sort out the mess left by years of town planning chaos where properties were built along the coast often with 'bribes' being paid to corrupt local planning officials. The Coastal Department says the new boundary will not only impose order on the town planning chaos but will also prevent any more new developments along the shore.

It is this that has affected Banderas and his wife, American actress Melanie Griffith and their £5 million property in Marbella. He has been ordered to hand over a 14,000 square feet strip. Although the house itself is not affected the order means losing a chunk of the garden.

The house, called La Gaviota, was built on the beach on land designated for public use and was declared illegal in 2003. It originally received its licence in 1993 when the town plans had been illegally redrawn by former mayor Jesus Gil and was bought by Banderas in 1997.

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Like thousands of others who bought coastal properties in good faith, the Hollywood couple had no idea that it would later fall foul of this law which is often referred to as the land 'grab' law.

It has recently been announced that 15 kilometres of land on the coast near Javea on the Costa Blanca is now public and this is set to cause serious problems for the owners of around 1,000 villas in the area. It is reported that around one hundred owners from Cala Blanca to Granadella may have to demolish all or part of their properties as a result, causing a local outcry.

Although the law is meant to help town councils determine what is legal and illegal building, in this example it has pitched the Mayor against the government. Javea's Mayor Eduardo Monfort has denounced the new boundary as illegal and an infringement of property rights.

The Coastal Department argues that action is needed to protect the shore from further development in an area where the cliffs have already started to collapse in some places. But few others support the issue.

Developers in Javea, already hard hit by the real estate crisis which has seen property prices plummet, say it will be the end for their business.

The law means that officials can get heavy handed. In Cho Vito in Tenerife police got involved when 60 people tried to prevent the demolition of 26 properties declared illegal under the Ley de Costas. Many of them were built in the 1950s and their owners never thought that they would be regarded in the same vein as the huge number of more modern properties that have blighted the coastline.

In some areas there are allegations that officials are targeting individual property owners while hotels and other big developments are not being forced to demolish.

'This recent activity shows there is still a problem for coastal home owners. It seems the application of the law is completely impartial,' said Mark Stucklin of Spanish Property Insight.

Stucklin, author of the book 'Need to Know: Buying Property in Spain' reckons that a range of property developments on the Costa Brava, Costa Dorada, Costa del Azahar, Costa Blanca, Costa Cálida, Costa de Almeria, Costa de Granada and Costa del Sol are likely to be affected.

Some property owners have formed campaigning groups to try to fight the system. Save Our Homes in Axarquia, Andalucia, was formed in January 2008 to try to save properties under threat of demolition and also work towards an amnesty for owners who bought in genuine faith.

SOHA is currently trying to work with Spanish officials to resolve the threat but it is prepared to fight all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

There is concern that the authorities are getting too heavy handed and now anyone whose property is declared to have been built illegally could face demolition.

The harsh reality was highlighted earlier this year by the case of British couple Helen and Len Prior when their £570,000 dream home in Vera, near Almeria was demolished.

It particularly shows the mess that Spain's planning laws have gotten into. Many local officials took bribes from developers in order to allow construction on beaches which are now regarded as public property.

The Prior's property had received planning consent from the town hall. However, due to a legal oversight, the necessary authorisation stamp from the Andalucian government was never obtained. Despite the Priors' ignorance of this, the regional authority decided last year that the property was illegal and issued a demolition order.

They were assured by their lawyer that the correct legal process had to be followed before the case could be decided. This was supposed to include the chance for the Priors to appeal against the decision in court, and a two-week notification of any action by the regional authority.

Even after receiving letters in December warning them of the impending demolition, they were reassured by their lawyer that nothing would happen while the case was under appeal.

However, in January, the Priors woke to find their electricity and water cut off. A few hours later they were confronted at their home by police with a demolition crew in tow, and given just a few hours to clear out their belongings before the bulldozers moved in.

During the demolition, Len Prior collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. Six other property owners in the area have also been given notice that their homes are at risk.

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The Spanish Supreme Court has since ruled that the demolition of their villa was itself illegal because correct procedures were not abided by. This isn't much help to the Priors who have lost their property but it does mean they are likely to get compensation.

Charles Svoboda of the pressure group Abusos Urbanisticos No is campaigning for justice for those affected by retrospective planning decisions. He says that people are suffering under a flawed system.

His advice includes finding an independent lawyer, not one that is connected with any developers. I general coastal property built at least 105 metres away from the high-tide mark or prior to 1988 should be safe from the Ley de Costas regulations.

No one really knows how many properties could be affected but most estimates are around the 100,000 mark.