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Strong zoning push to target maritime zone projects

by Garland M Baker on September 15, 2008

Foreigners developing on the coast are handicapped because there are little or no guidelines for development. Guidelines for developers come from regulatory or zoning plans. These plans are — in theory — designed to align the land and human activities to the best use of resources without depleting those resources.

In the past, foreigners interested in developing have skirted the rules, especially in the maritime zone. In many cases, they have had to do so because no coherent rules were in place. Today, the Costa Rican government is finally trying to regulate growth and building, especially on the coasts with integral territorial zoning plans. Each one will encompass large areas. These integral plans are coming for areas all over the country.

One very important integral coastal plan on the drawing board right now and of special interest to the government is for the Hermosa, El Coco and Bahía Azul area of Guanacaste. The government wants this plan to showcase its interest in sustainable development and promote investment. This plan includes an area of 200.5 hectares or 495.5 acres.

In Costa Rica a zoning plan for an area is referred to as a plan regulador. In the past, municipalities have had little or no money to create zoning plans. In urban areas this fact means there has been building with no planning. Development with no planning means no organization, and many subdivisions throughout the Central Valley and on the coast are suffering today because of this lack of planning and organization.

In the maritime zone, within the 150-meter restricted area, something else has happened over the years. Private interests that wanted to develop property paid for zoning plans to suit their needs. Many municipalities throughout Costa Rica accepted the privately funded plans to raise their tax bases. In some cases, municipal officials personally enriched themselves working with private companies on these zoning plans. Others just built without permission period.

To get a concession from the country in the restricted area of the maritime zone a regulatory plan must be in place. Concessions are the vehicle people and companies use to make money in the restricted area. For example, to build a condominium or a resort in this area, the country must license the use — through a concession — to the individual or company. Only Costa Rican citizens are allowed to hold a concession. However, this is another one of the rules everyone skirts by using Costa Ricans as puppets when applying for a concession.

The Procuraduría, the attorney general’s office of the country, has tried hard to curb these practices, but officials have not had much success to date. Many people in Costa Rica bend the rules and seemingly appear to get away with doing so.

The reason the Costa Rican government wants the Hermosa, El Coco and Bahía Azul coastal zoning plan in place so badly is because the country wants to prove to the world it knows how to plan sustainable development. The government wants to provide developers a set of rules they can use in planning and get rid of the surprises that currently plague those trying to do something in Costa Rica. This plan is indeed different for the following reasons:

1. The project is being paid for by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo — the tourism institute — not private companies or local municipalities. The plan is designed to promote local as well as
international tourism as well as investment. 2. It is designed to organize and plan future development.

3. Protecting the environment and natural resources is a core objective of the plan.

4. Increasing the security of concessions for those people who have obtained them is of key importance to promote foreign investment.

5. The taxes generated in sectors where there are integral plans will help the municipalities improve and maintain important infrastructure. This is a serious problem for coastal projects today.

6. Access to public zones will be enhanced for Costa Ricans.

There is also another very important element to the new zoning plans on the coast, one everyone with property in the maritime zone should know. Any structures within the 50-meter zone will be inventoried and probably be torn down. Some structures have already been demolished. This is the public area from the mean high tide line to a point 50 meters inland. Structures within the 150 meters restricted zone also will be inventoried and analyzed. The analysis will be to determine whether or not the structures are legal. Structures that were built without permission and permits also will be torn down.

Many people in Costa Rica adhere to the unwritten guideline that it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission. In the cases where people used this method of building in the restricted zone, it may very well be the cause for the demolition of whatever they built.

Those who have obeyed the rules and followed the correct procedures will have their properties on the coast and in the maritime zone enhanced by the new coastal zoning plans. Hopefully, one of the first ones for Hermosa, El Coco and Bahía Azul area will be everything it is cracked up to be, a serious plan for sustainable development and increased foreign investment.

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