Sardinia's coastline protected from developers

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Sardinia took a giant step towards saving its coastline for posterity this week when the island's regional assembly approved a law banning construction on 1,100 miles of land near the sea.

The law is expected to kill off plans from Silvio Berlusconi's brother Paolo to build a huge tourist complex on the Costa Turchese on the island's east coast, near Olbia. The plan has been in the air since the former prime minister set his sights on the island 25 years ago. The plan, which envisaged 500 hectares of villas and hotels, and moorings for 2,000 yachts, was rejected by successive island governments. Then in 2004, with the help of a friendly mayor of Olbia, it finally got a green light.

Now, however, it seems doomed. The Costa Turchese, which is home to a marine nature reserve, is to be rigorously protected from all construction. The measure to protect Sardinia's coasts had first been imposed as a "decree law" two years ago, but this week a more carefully finessed version was passed into law.

The island's governor, Renato Soru, the billionaire founder of the internet service provider Tiscali, who has made the preservation of the island's exquisite environment a personal crusade, was radiant. "The government and the majority have kept faith with a commitment made in our election campaign that for us is a fundamental point in our programme," he said. "Now Sardinia is safe: there is a strip of coastline covering on average three kilometres from the sea where it is not possible to build anything. The Sardinian territory will no longer be consumed."

The centre-right opposition was furious and staged a protest sit-in inside the assembly, which was still going on yesterday evening, more than 24 hours after it started. "The occupation of the assembly is the only adequate way to reply to this centre left which is trying to tyrannise and mock the Sardinians," said Matteo Sanna, a regional councillor with the post-fascist National Alliance. "The Countryside Plan approved by the administration is only the latest of a string of measures which are against Sardinians and against the economy of our land."

Another centre-right councillor said: "The building industry will be paralysed, thousands will be thrown out of work."

Yet despite the protests, so far the island's bald, studious-looking, bespectacled billionaire seems to have succeeded in retaining the support of the people for his dream of hanging on to the island's natural beauty for the next 500 years.

In the spring of last year, a by-election in the constituency that includes the colossal Villa Certosa where Silvio Berlusconi spends his holidays was won handsomely by the centre left. Recently the opposition tried to get support for a referendum on the Countryside Plan. Thirty thousand signatures were required, but they only managed to gather only 8,000.

As enacted this week, the new law allows construction work that is already under way to be completed, and reconstruction to be undertaken in existing resort areas. The Californian tycoon Tom Barrack who owns much of the Costa Smeralda, one of Sardinia's marine jewels, will, for instance, be allowed to rebuild in areas that are already built up, and to replace the naval shipyard with a hotel. But Mr Barrack will not be able to expand beyond the resort's existing limits.

The new law brings an end to a period of anarchy on the island, when the striking down by a regional court of 13 out of 14 local development plans left a planning vacuum into which developers rushed to build new tourist facilities. Mr Soru commented: "All that has been saved from assault during the previous decades will remain intact. The beauty of nature is a patrimony that can be exploited only if it is not violated. We were given the task of turning the page, and we have done so. The island's Wild West period is over."