Spain, and in particular the Costa del Sol, is one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations, and from Marbella, Puerto Banus, Benalmadena, Torremolinos, Mijas Costa, Fuengirola, San Pedro, Málaga or Estepona Ronda is only a short drive, between 45 minutes and 1hr 15minutes away, and is rated one of THE must-see destinations in Spain.
Carved in the cliffs of the ‘El Tajo’ gorge is a surprising mine and fortress that dates back to the Moorish era when constant wars in Al-Andalus required the city governors to protect water supplies to the people and defenders.
The Water Mine was built during the reign of Ronda’s King Abomelic at the beginning of the 14th century, when Ronda was an independent Islamic kingdom on the frontline between the Christian north, and the newly developing Islamic Nazari Kingdom in Granada. To reach the water mine it is necessary to first enter the gardens of the House of the Moorish King.
Recently Ronda has been subject to numerous grandstanding exercises over the fate of the Casa del Rey Moro, arguably one of the best known buildings in the old town. Last month the owner in a moment of frustration at not getting approval to build a five star hotel hung a banner claiming that 200 jobs in Ronda have not been created due to planning consent issues, he was promptly arrested and his banner removed by the Policia Local, starting a vicious series of recriminations between the owner and the mayor of Ronda.
Almost all of the Ronda and Spanish press have reported the story, the owner of the palace has not been slack in getting his opinion out, whilst on the opposite side the mayor and senior PSOE councillors have called for the palace to be expropriated. Ignoring the politics for the moment, here are the facts of the story as known by Ronda Today.
The Facts of the Situation
Jochen Knie, a German expatriate who owns a five start hotel in Sevilla bought the Casa del Rey Moro in 1996, an agreement signed by the then mayor of Ronda, PSOE Juan Fraile, with the explicit intention (mentioned in the contract of sale) Knie would renovate the building and construct a five star hotel in the city. At the time, the town hall pledged to alter the municipal zoning plans so that the hotel could proceed.
Within the original contract of sale was a stipulation that Knie or his nominated company, Casa del Rey Moro S.L. would repair and open to the public the gardens of the palace and the mine which descends to the Guadalevín, the river that separates the two halves of Ronda. The garden and mine were assessed by archeology experts from the Universities of Sevilla and Málaga, and opened to the public in 1997.
The first consent for the hotel was rejected as containing too many changes for a culturally important building in 1998, and a second plan drawn up which has yet to be approved or rejected. Building consent in the Casco Antiguo, the old town, is notoriously difficult to obtain owing to the preciousness of the area and to a legal fact that the Ayuntamiento is not empowered to approve consents within the area, in fact consent must come from the Junta de Andalucía.
Fundamentally, the problem with building consent in the old town, the Padre Jesus district, most of the old part of Mercadillo, and the Barrio de San Francisco is that zoning plans must be approved by the Junta de Andalucía because of their historical and cultural importance, in fact the Ayuntamiento has no power to create the zoning plan, and no power to approve or deny applications for building consent. Essentially the Ayuntamiento is legally not competent in these areas, not from lack of experienced people, more because the Junta de Andalucía have a legal obligation under Spanish national law to protect areas of cultural importance and other cities such as Antequera, Marbella, Córdoba, Granada, Cadíz etc are in the same position.
Consequently the situation has dragged on for 14 years without a satisfactory solution. Furthermore, several key players in the drama have become fed up and legal action initiated from at least three of the parties against each other.
Jochen Knie has filed a notice for compensation against the Ayuntamiento de Ronda to the value of 6.4 million Euros for breach of contract, a lady who sold a property to Jochen Knie in return for having her home rebuilt has initiated legal action against the Casa del Rey Moro for restitution, and now the Ayuntamiento is starting proceedings to have the palace expropriated ostensibly due to damage caused from neglect by the owner.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Policia Local are considering charges against Jochen Knie for breach of the peace and hanging his banner without permission, whilst Jochen Knie has denounced the Policia Local, Rafael Lara, and Antonio Marín Lara through the Policia Nacional for wrongful arrest and other allegations after the public dispute that occurred on Saturday 27th March 2010.
Ronda Suffers the Consequences of the Dispute
Altogether the recent events are a terrible shame and bring Ronda into disrepute, made worse when sensationalist local newspapers allow themselves to be used by the various parties for political point scoring. Foreign visitors to Ronda who have been interviewed by Ronda Today report reading about the dispute in a prominent local English newspaper and despairing that the Casa del Rey Moro was in imminent danger of collapsing. In fact this is far from the truth as attested by architects and engineers who are familiar with the building.
In a recent statement by the mayor of Ronda to a journalist from El Pais, Antonio Marín Lara extended an olive branch to Jochen Knie describing him as a good business person and offering to reduce council fees for presenting his building consent application to just 5% of normal fees.
At the current time, it is still not possible for the hotel project to go ahead because the current zoning plan lists the Casa del Rey Moro is a cultural monument, though in fact the only parts of the property that have a high level of protection are the garden and mine, the palace itself is a relatively recent structure with the main building and towers being constructed in the early 20th century. The palace itself is listed as a category B protected building of Grade 1 and 2 which is not especially high and does allow for renovations, but currently does not allow for a hotel to be constructed.
The (hopefully) soon to be approved zoning plan for Ronda changes its designation to “turistico” which would allow the building of a hotel, of course abiding by the restrictions placed on all construction within a culturally and historically important area that requires the exterior of a building to be protected without insensitive changes. Quite simply this means in the case of the Casa del Rey Moro that all existing windows, doors, special architectural embellishments, the towers, the colour etc must remain the same after renovation.
Jochen Knie confirmed to Ronda Today that his architects are aware of the restrictions and would not be building a UFO as has been described by the mayor in recent press interviews, you can see for yourself what the architects envisage by watching the YouTube video alongside this paragraph.
What then is the future of the Casa del Rey Moro? Legal advisors tell Ronda Today that the mayor’s expropriation claim is unlikely to succeed because the building is not in a sufficiently degraded state for the courts to award expropriation, though they may require the owner to shore up certain parts of the building. Furthermore, several PSOE and PP activists in Ronda have expressed the opinion the mayor is simply playing politics by appearing to act in the interests of Rondeños, many of whom would prefer to see the palace restored as a museum for the benefit of the city.
Architects in Ronda have also expressed the opinion that the new zoning plan will soon be approved making it permissible for Jochen Knie to continue with his hotel project, albeit 14 years late, and barring delays could see construction start within the next 2-3 years. Knie’s compensation claim is progressing very slowly and likely won’t be settled for another 10 years or more, by which time a new mayor will most likely have to deal with the findings.
In addition, Knie has confirmed to Ronda Today that the dispute with the former owner of a property purchased by Knie is close to reaching a satisfactory conclusion.
It seems then that in fact there is no story to report, yet Knie and the mayor have both gone on the offensive over a situation that probably needn’t have occurred, politics as usual is the winner, whilst ordinary Rondeños sit back scratching their heads wondering what all the fuss is. Strategically, Knie’s actions can’t be considered any other way than as a publicity stunt to draw attention to his project, whist the Policia Local’s actions in entering the property and arresting Knie have been described by at least one local lawyer as unwise and possibly in contravention of Spanish and EU law.
Ronda Today hopes the issue of what to do with the Casa del Rey Moro reaches a speedy conclusion, because this certainly isn’t good for Ronda in the public eye, and has the potential to affect the efforts of the Office of Tourism as they compete with larger cities for a shrinking slice of the tourism Euro.