The dream of owning a home on the Ria Formosa island of Armona, lies in tatters for the British couple whose half-built property is the centre of a planning row that exposes Olhão's ratepayers to a potential €15 million compensation bill.
The local council gave planning permission to Paul Roseby and James Tod to remove two old buildings and to create a modern home, a dream property on Armona overlooking the Ria Formosa where they could relax and take time out from their busy working lives. Roseby is the CEO of the National Youth Theatre in London and James Tod is a Broadway and West End producer.
The problem was, unbeknownst to the owners, that their recently purchased site lies outside the island's 'invisible line' marking the area controlled by Olhão council and, potentially along with 140 other existing properties, their house is to be demolished as it is on public maritime land.
Sebastião Teixeira, as head of the Algarve’s environmental association (Agência Portuguesa do Ambiente), has determined that, at any time after August 1st, if the property has not been removed by its owners, it will be demolished as it is illegally constructed on protected land - Loulé court agrees with him.
Having spend hundreds of thousands on buying the site and starting construction, plus an additional €50,000 on legal fees fighting their case, the Britons were left reeling after a court decided that, despite the owners acting in good faith, the building project violates the Ria Formosa natural park and overall coastal development plans (POOC) covering the area and, indeed, is sited outside the area granted to the council to oversee.
Olhão not only has been sending Roseby and Tod bills for annual property taxes, quite illegally as it does not control the area in question, for years it has been raking in IMI taxes from another 140 property owners without the legal right to do so.
The legal battle, financed entirely by the British couple, reached the Central Administrative Court which concluded that the local council has committed a crime in collecting property taxes and in issuing planning permission to Roseby and Tod, and to all the other properties that illegally have been built in a zone that the council has no jurisdiction over.
Paul Roseby commented to algarvedailynews:
“We are deeply upset and appalled at how a couple like us who acted in every legally appropriate way, from purchase to planning to employment, can find ourselves in such an extreme and unjustifiable situation where we are being treated like criminals.
“This small civic case is turning in to a national embarrassment and a national scandal that we now believe needs local and international awareness.
“How can the Portuguese Government who currently is campaigning in the UK to attract tourists and foreign investors, turn their backs on an act of aggression against mine and my partner's human rights.
“How can any credible country produce legal documentation with the official Local Government rubber stamp of approval which is then found by the local court of Loulé to be worthless. As a national Portuguese agency it appears then that the Agência Portuguesa do Ambiente (APA) is now the voice of National and Local Government, and the judge has ruled they have jurisdiction over said local government. Therefore, all our legal transactions and approvals, state taxes and contracts with state utilities are also deemed worthless.
“As we have acted always in good faith and adhered to every legal procedure, why didn’t the ICNF and APA agencies go directly to Olhão Câmara to fight their grievance?
“Instead they prey on the innocent individual where we have paid in excess of €50,000 battling on behalf of Olhâo Câmara.
Local social media commentators are appalled that Olhâo mayor, António Pina has allowed this situation to occur and at his failure quietly to resolve the matter - not least because the compensation bill could be as high as €15 million if Sebastião Teixeira, renowned for his zeal in the Ria Formosa island property demolition saga, gets his way and demolished this ‘test case’ property and then goes for all the others.
Strangely, the Britons' house is the only one subject to a demolition order, despite 140 neighbouring properties also being illegal sited.
“This legal action signifies a complete breakdown of trust between taxpaying citizens in Portugal and their Government. Olhão council appear to be powerless to protect their taxpayers and local residents who legally purchased two original properties on the island.
“Our houses were in severe disrepair, with subsidence, asbestos roofing, extensive damp and poor insulation and we adhered to the environmental guidelines set out by the council and environmental agencies to replace and rebuild with eco-friendly materials.
“Our houses are now lying in a half finished state and that are decaying whilst being uninhabitable.
“The barrage of five environment agency law suits prevented the completion of our dream home. There are many fine examples on the island, including within the supposed 'forbidden zone’, where rebuilds have all been sanctioned and carried out successfully without any agency litigation or demolition orders proving that our case is one that is both disproportionate and discriminatory.
"Olhão Câmara has not supported us with a single euro whilst we have been forced to fight these cases alone. As foreigners, this process has been confusing, terrifying and damaging to our health. We now fear for other property owners throughout the area of Ria Formosa and the rest of Portugal.
“We love the country we chose to spend our life savings in, but now can only turn to U.K and other European media outlets to warn those who are considering making an investment not to get trapped in the same outrageous and impossible situation.
“At the same time, if the Portuguese government is serious about future foreign investment, it would do well to instigate a national public inquiry in to this shameful state of affairs.
"Olhão council recognises that this situation is a test case and if mayor Pina does not find a solution, this will have serious implications to the other houses and ultimately to Olhão finances as the compensation bill will be in excess of €15 million.”
Mayor, António Pina, is up for reelection on October 1st and already is struggling with widespread dissatisfaction in his local Socialist Party network and from citizens that have not appreciated his modernisation plans to develop the city into another Vilamoura, rather than concentrate on the vernacular appeal and history of the least developed coastal city in the region.
As for Roseby and Tod, they are being hung out to dry by a council that has failed for years to follow some pretty simple planning rules and would rather the problem would just go away, rather than have to admit its mistake and get the chequebook out.
Very soon, testing it now.
Pina may lose his job, but his bed will have been well feathered.