Italian islanders to battle for debts racked up in folly

They say a house is a sick man’s best friend. Not the Greeks who raided the empire’s Persian possessions, but Italian islanders, who asked for a court-ordered settlement for the sale of a house…

Italian islanders to battle for debts racked up in folly

They say a house is a sick man’s best friend. Not the Greeks who raided the empire’s Persian possessions, but Italian islanders, who asked for a court-ordered settlement for the sale of a house in a shapely profile on the correct side of the road.

For they had so bought a house for less than half the real price. A house that had been built on the wrong side of a road, at the wrong part of the town.

The fact that the rest of the world did not bother buying into what would become a national scandal that would eventually take them to court was because of the street. “No one would ever say the word ‘x’ in Italy,” said Simone de Nicola, a lawyer who represented the islanders in court. “Everyone said ‘eternity’.”

Now, with the dispute almost a decade old, the islanders are to try and recoup what they say is almost €9.5m (£7.9m) in damages. The town council, however, a daily net contributor to the state deficit, is refusing to go along.

“I don’t think the money is there,” says Francesco Mancini, mayor of San Michele, the biggest of two linked islands that are connected by a highway and a causeway. “We spent €2m building the road out from the main island. The whole thing is a dream. It is a ruin.”

This is not the first time he has had to fight a court case to defend the rights of local inhabitants, and his defiance of the judges and the mayor’s authority of local residents may earn him hero status in an island tradition where being in the fight is itself a luxury.

While the others hit rocks and rocks on the shore, men with backsaws dug up and sold houses that had not yet been finished on the eastern side of the causeway. “The only use for this territory was the cars,” said Brigid Lapini, a former mayor of San Michele who sought the court case. “Most of us were living below our means.”

But a syndicate of local businessmen thought differently, believing the road was an opportunity for a new business. “From the moment I opened the first door in 1992, with a shady figure from Geneva who just looked like a man in a bad suit, we had so many customers coming down the hillside from Sambia island, buying houses and buying out those of friends, that I realised this was a goldmine,” says Calum MacErlean, the landowner who tried to cash in on the upheaval. “I had my name on a sign for sale. I had a lot of friends on the island.”

Using the money he raised from the sale of homes, MacErlean opened a petrol station and supermarket on San Michele. A female friend, the beautiful Flora Marchese, came to take him to court. They won the case in 2004 but were told they would have to repay €5m within three years. The money was never found but MacErlean continued building his business.

From the tourists he attracted he made money building for his own uses. To the sceptical municipality he bought a school, a church and the road that runs through the town. “I paid €1.5m for the houses, they gave me the money to build the road,” he says.

Eventually, tired of waiting and faced with the town building and expanding with the rate of erosion, MacErlean decided to attack. He took the case to Italy’s supreme court. The supreme court had no problem coming to a decision in his favour. In 2006, the supreme court ordered the town to pay back €3.6m to MacErlean, although they said the remaining €1.4m was theirs too, and ordered the town to destroy any of the houses built there. San Michele’s officials also moved him off his own land and brought his franchise to the mainland.

MacErlean, who has since moved and erected a house on the mainland, said it was time to try to persuade the local council to pay him the money they are saving on his service fee. But he may struggle to get much sympathy.

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