“Please can we demolish your eye-sore?”

In Istrian villages, older properties often lean against one another: buildings on one plot can get muddled with those on another, boundaries can criss-cross and so on. Very picturesque, but it means that during renovations, something that seems straightforward can rapidly get very complex, involving more and more people. Our place in Kovaci is a case in point: it started with simply wanting to reduce the height of a boundary wall … and before long I was thinking about demolishing an animal shed, heading to a meeting with the local council and being asked to build another wall …!


Creating space for a pool

Half-demolished old stone outbuilding in Kovaci, IstriaOur garden in Kovaci is long and thin, so, to create space for a swimming pool, we needed to demolish one of our two outbuildings (an illegally built stone shed). This was incorporated into part of the boundary on the south side of the garden, which borders a small plot which had been abandoned. However, once the side walls and roof were removed, we were left with a very high boundary wall – too high. Not only did it loom over the garden, in summer it would throw shade all over the pool area. Simple, I thought, let’s reduce the height.


The first domino falls…

Much to my surprise, I found out that we owned the wall, so in theory, could do what we like with it. The bad news was a ramshackle animal shed had been built next door, leaning against it. If we lowered the wall and the shed fell down – which it looked all set to do – we’d have to repair the damage (even though this shed, like ours, was built illegally). And even if it didn’t fall down, we’d simply have the shed cutting out the sunlight instead of the wall (and looking totally ridiculous).

So the animal shed would have to go and I needed to talk to its owners, Kaštelir Opcina (the local council).

Derelict animal shed in Kovaci, IstriaLong abandoned, the Opcina was trying to sell the property – good news for us (or so I thought). I assumed they’d want the place to look as attractive as possible, to encourage buyers – and the old animal shed certainly didn’t help. Crudely built of breeze blocks and corrugated iron, it was a crumbling eye-sore  taking up a lot of space on a small plot of land; also I doubted it was on the cadastral plan, so would be unusable without additional planning permission. I was sure any prospective buyer would simply knock it down anyway.

Ever the optimist, I thought I’d be increasing the property’s appeal by removing the shed and I reasoned that the Opcina might well agree. Of course, I was alone in this opinion: “Don’t even think about it!” was the general view. “Even if they say yes, which they won’t, it will take forever.”


Let’s all get involved

In Croatia, I’ve learned that if you get a negative answer, simply ask someone else … you’ll get as many different opinions as people! So undeterred, I decided to speak with my neighbours, Fiore and Valter, in the hope they would be willing to talk to the Opcina for me. It’s not that I was afraid of talking to the local council (well OK, I was a little), it’s just that I thought locals might have more success than a foreign in-comer (well that’s my excuse).

Fiore thought removing the old animal shed was a great idea. “It looks awful,” he said. “I’ll get you the Opcina’s phone number.” “Damn,” I thought: I’d hoped he’d speak to them for me! So next, I talked to Valter, who was more helpful. “I can’t ask for you,” he said, “but I know who you need to speak to – I can arrange a meeting for you.” Good as his word, I got a phone call the following Monday: I had a meeting a few days later with the head of Kaštelir Opcina, who apparently spoke some English.


Meeting the Opcina

I might be mad enough to attempt a property restoration in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, but I’m not fool enough to attempt a meeting with the head of the local council on my own. Even if he spoke some English, explaining my wishes – and convincing him to let me do it – would be well beyond our joint linguistic abilities, and would put me at a real negotiating disadvantage. I needed a friendly local and it was time to call in my secret weapon – My Friend Snježana.  Not only is she a fantastic translator, she also has a magic touch with awkward officials: I’ve seen her make even the sternest of them smile! If anyone could help me pull this off, she could. 

Overly-high wall at Kovaci, IstriaEven with Snježana’s assistance, I approached the Opcina with some trepidation – my experiences with Porec’s authorities have been very mixed, and more negative than positive.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. Not only did the council chief not keep us waiting, he was expecting us. He was charming, helpful and a true gentleman –  and Valter had been to see him (thank you Valter!), so he’d even collected the necessary paperwork.

Together we looked at the cadastral plan and confirmed the wall was ours. As the old animal shed wasn’t included, as I suspected, he saw no reason why we shouldn’t remove it … I was stunned. “But,” he added quickly, it wasn’t his decision to make – yet more people needed to be involved. He needed to run it past his legal department and then clear it with the full Council. But he’d put it on the agenda for the next meeting, in a couple of days and if we called back at the end of the week, he’d have an answer.

While I’d (somewhat unrealistically) hoped for a yes/no decision today, I knew this was a brilliant outcome. A decision in a few days from a local council (rather than the months/years I was used to) was amazing. I was impressed with the Kaštelir Opcina and went home full of optimism.


A wall for a wall

Friday afternoon, and the project grew again. Snježana phoned the Opcina and the official response was “Yes!” … but with a small proviso. “Could we build them a wall?”

Neighbour's old stone wall to be replacedLater this year, mains drainage will be installed in Kaštelir, beside the road. To accommodate this, the Opcina would like to move the existing wall on the edge of their land back a metre, and wanted a new wall built. It didn’t need to be a stone wall, anything would do. I’d hoped demolishing and removing the animal shed would be payment enough, but I guess they wanted more.

 “How much for a 10 m wall?” I wondered.

I started to consider forgetting the whole idea – it was getting too expensive and complicated. Nevertheless I went off to see my builder, Miro, to ask him how much a new wall would cost … only to find him fretting about our wall. Now we had removed the shed sides and roof, he was worried the wall could fall down – potentially on top of sunbathing guests! When the shed had been built, the wall had been extended upwards and its foundations were now insufficient. To be safe, he needed to reduce its height.

Resigned to paying whatever was needed, I arranged another meeting with the Opcina to finalise the details and agree exactly where the new wall should run.


Yes becomes no

The meeting was quick: a very apologetic Opcina Chief said the Council had changed its mind. As they are trying to sell the property, they had involved yet another interested party – an estate agent, who has the property listed with two outbuildings. She says that, until the property’s sold, the animal shed must stay.

So what was I to do with the wall? It was time to talk to Miro again. In a pose known to builders the world over, he eyed the wall and sucked his teeth. “You’ll need extra foundations,’ he said, “The top needs capping to stop water getting inside and it’ll need re-pointing.”

“Is that all?!” I knew all that would need to be done: it was obvious. Where had this huge instability problem gone? I knew I should be relieved, not irritated, but why had he made me worry about something so easily resolved?


An uplifting solution

Miro’s solution might stabilise the wall, but I was still left with the problem of its height. It really did dominate the pool area.

Pool & wall with the ground lifted but a lot of work still to be doneIn the end, some lateral thinking provided the answer. If we couldn’t reduce the height of the wall, we’d simply lift the level of the ground in front of it! So that’s what we did. And that’s why, starting from an idea to reduce the height of the wall, we ended up raising the height of the pool … via about 10 people and discussions on knocking down a shed and building a new wall. But hopefully soon, when all the work’s finished, you’ll never know what an issue that attractive flood-lit wall once was. Covered in passion flower and jasmine, it’ll simply be the perfect back-drop to the pool and terrace. Here’s hoping!


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