GRASSE — They call it "the Provençal permit," a local custom of sorts that involves building first and asking questions later. The logic is that once a construction is in place, authorities will feel more or less obliged to approve it retroactively. It is surprising how often that actually happens.
Recently, though, one land owner has been pushing this strategy beyond any kind of imaginable limit. In a small valley near the French Riviera, Patrick Diter built a veritable palace, a 17,000-square foot mega-mansion complete with a Moorish pavilion and themed gardens — all without a permit.
Château Diter, as it is called, is truly an impressive sight, with its turrets, colonnades, balustrades, fountains, statues, small temple and green cupola. On his website, the owner boasts about the property's authenticity and natural character, about "the historic and spiritual imprint of this castle" and the "timeless beauty of the Italian architecture."
What he doesn't mention is that just 10 years ago, this side of the valley was empty except for a modest 2,700-square foot farmhouse and an old abandoned distillery.
Diter is proud of his "achievement," even though it was done without permission and in the middle of a protected natural area. "This represents 10 years of work I did with my own hands," he told us before refusing to answer any more of our questions.
Diter bought 25 acres of land here in 2000. He paid 8 million francs ($1.6 million) and then sold 80% of it to Caroline and Stephen Butt, a French-British couple, for 3 million euros ($3.2 million) in 2004. Diter then used that tidy little profit to finance his "folly."
"We were on good terms in the beginning," says Caroline Butt. "But whenever we returned from London, we noticed that there was a new building. We didn't react at first, because we weren't aware of what the French law says."
One of their neighbors, Anne-Marie Sohn, an academic whose father used to own a perfume factory, discovered that the construction was being done without a permit after one of the machines used on the site damaged one of her outer walls.
Two offense reports were filed in 2005, to no avail. Construction continued, and a year later, Diter even submitted a regularization plea for what he claimed was a 5,000-square foot project — a gross underestimation. The mayor eventually accepted the request.
It was only in 2013 that Anne-Marie Sohn and the Butts discovered that the permit claimed that a huge swimming pool and a house existed prior to start of construction, even though they were brand new. They pressed charges, but the case is making little progress.
"It's quite common practice around here to build without a permit and later have the construction regularized," the prosecutor says. "And out of about a hundred convictions, only two have resulted in demolition."
After this first authorization, Diter resumed his project with even greater intensity, adding a conservatory, a summer kitchen, colonnades and more. In 2010, when construction finally ended, he started renting out the place for wedding parties and other special events. Wedding planners and rental agencies highlighted the location's "authentic" character, its three swimming-pools, two heliports and 132 loud speakers with "no noise restriction" — all of this despite the opposition of the local authorities.
Enough is enough
What began as a conflict between wealthy landowners eventually became a popular revolt against Diter. Overall, some 60 valley residents, fed up with the noise and the feeling of impunity, took up the cause.
"We bought our house here in 2010 to have some peace and quiet and every other week-end we can't even sleep," say Pascal and Karine Piel. "When we want to build a simple garage, we've got the rural policeman on our backs. Do we need to drive a Porsche Cayenne to be allowed to do whatever we want?"
Worse, Patrick Diter recently had hundreds of trees cut down in a protected area to create an illegal access to the main road. Later, water from heavy rains funneled down the artificial bed and severely damaged a nearby farmhouse.
Local authorities had to pay a large amount of money to have the place refurbished. The mayor approached Diter about the problem, but was rebuffed. "He responded in a devil-may-care manner," the mayor explains. "Since then, other rainfalls have made the situation worse and I have no intention to leave it be."