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Death on Italy’s Amalfi Coast Spurs Call for Building Crackdown
By Adam L. Freeman
Nov. 2 (Bloomberg) — Police Captain Alessandro Furno shakes his head as he points at the wreckage of an illegally built deck that collapsed on southern Italy’s Amalfi coast, sending a Naples hairdresser to his death on the rocks below.
“This phenomenon is becoming alarming,” Furno, 35, says from his patrol boat, which he uses to search for signs of illegal construction, such as tarps covering partially built structures and building materials hidden behind vegetation.
The villas and hotels along the craggy cliffs and lemon groves of the Amalfi coast have attracted movie stars such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and inspired writers from John Steinbeck to Patricia Highsmith, author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It’s also part of the region that has the highest rate of unlawful building in Italy.
The accident in August that killed Antonio Rocco, 54, and injured eight others sparked pledges of a crackdown by Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s cabinet, and Furno says he’s under more pressure to spot violations. Environmental groups are concerned government officials who have condoned illegal construction won’t have the will to stop it.
Past practice “has created the anticipation that unauthorized building will eventually be pardoned,” says Michele Candotti, secretary general of the World Wildlife Fund’s Italian branch. “It undermines a culture of legality.”
Illegal projects account for 9 percent of all construction in Italy, which totaled 146 billion euros ($210 billion) last year, according to Legambiente, the country’s biggest environmental group.
`Muddled and Slow’
The ratio rises to 17 percent in the coastal region of Campania, which includes Amalfi and runs from the Gulf of Naples to Salerno, Legambiente’s “Ecomafia Report” shows.
Violations include unauthorized house decks and additions, as well as parts of luxury villas and hotels that don’t adhere to building codes, says Furno. A member of the finance police, he’s charged with fighting both tax evasion and non-fiscal crimes.
Hazards are often posed by shoddy construction, as in August, when floor boards on the deck built into a cliff buckled under a gathering of holidaymakers. Other times, the location of the structure puts occupants at risk. Last year, a house built illegally at the bottom of a slope on the island of Ischia near Capri was smothered after rains triggered a mudslide, killing a man and his three children.
Campania is the nation’s biggest offender, with 5.48 confirmed infractions per kilometer (0.6 mile) of coastline, 2006 figures from Legambiente show.
“Particularly in Campania, urban planning has been muddled and slow, favoring illegal construction,” says Ambrogio Prezioso, president of the Neapolitan builders trade group, Associazione Costruttori Edili Napoli.
Willing builders are easy to find in an area dominated by the Naples-based crime families known collectively as the Camorra. One of those families has a hand in every aspect of Campania construction, according to Roberto Saviano’s book on the Neapolitan crime industry, “Gomorrah,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (320 pages; $25).
In the past, cash-strapped governments excused illegal building in return for fines. The slow pace of Italy’s legal system means court cases are often thrown out after a three-year statute of limitations, says Captain Enrico Calandro, who directs the paramilitary Carabinieri police force in the village of Amalfi.
“All this cultivates a general lack of civic sensibility,” he says.
`Beatniks and Hippies’
Prodi’s government, which came into power in May 2006, has promised a tougher stance.
“First we’ll demolish the buildings and then go to trial,” says Environment Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, a member of the Green Party from Salerno.
Yet even Furno has yet to see evidence of significant change.
“You can count the amount of demolitions on the Amalfi coast on one hand,” Furno says. “The law doesn’t work.”
Villas and apartments in villages like Positano fetch as much as 15,000 euros a square meter, according to the Amalfi branch of the local real estate company Tecnocasa. That compares with about 9,600 euros in the historical center of Rome.
Franco Cava, a 60-year-old artist who has made the village of Positano his home off-and-on for 40 years, suspects slapdash construction has helped permanently transform the Amalfi coast.
“This place was a fishing village before people started changing chicken coops into apartments to rent to beatniks and hippies in the ’60s,” Cava says.
Michele Buonomo, president of the Campania branch of Legambiente, says the policies of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi helped encourage property owners to cut corners.
In 1994, Berlusconi offered an amnesty on illegal construction in exchange for fines, following a practice started by the Socialist government of Bettino Craxi in 1985. A similar measure by Berlusconi’s second government in 2004 raised about 4 billion euros to tame the budget deficit, according to the Treasury.
Illicit construction reached a record 30 percent of all building in 1994, when Berlusconi declared his first amnesty, according to Legambiente.
Paolo Bonaiuti, a spokesman for the former prime minister, couldn’t be reached for comment.
“Now there’s a government that at least has the intention to do something about” the illegal construction, Buonomo says.
To contact the reporter on this story: Adam L. Freeman in Rome at firstname.lastname@example.org