Pacific beach zoning plan was long time in coming

Once upon a time, long ago, there were zoning plans up and down the coast of Guanacaste for the Zona Maritimo Terrestre. This area is known to most as Costa Rica’s ZMT or the maritime zone.  Most plans originated in the 80s. There have been some modifications to them throughout the years, but not many.

The maritime zone contains two parts: The first 50 meters inland measured from high tide is the public zone and the next 150 meters concession property. The total of the two areas or 200 meters is public land and considered owned by all Costa Ricans. There are some exceptions where the land is titled or part of a special government program like the area in Papagayo, Guanacaste.

Costa Rica mean rich coast for a reason. It is beautiful and very important to tourism. However, 11 cantons have been without viable zoning for years. Government officials say new zoning is just around the corner. They have been saying this for years. Most people believe it is all just talk and political rhetoric and nothing more than a fairy tale.

The Municipalidad de Carrillo had another public meeting Friday for the canton’s zoning plan. Shortly after the last one some years ago, a Carrillo resident filed a Sala IV case against it that was not resolved until last year. The concerned citizen said the public audience regarding the plan was too technical for common people to understand. The person also complained the zoning did not contemplate the migration habits of the turtles common to the area.

Carrillo contains some of the country’s premier beaches, including Playa Hermosa, Playa Panama, Playa Ocotal and Playas del Coco.

Two Costa Rican businesspersons who sell fish in Playas del Coco were happy about the meeting, but said in an interview, many locals want no new development at all in the area. “It is impossible to make everyone happy,” they said.

Linda Gray, owner of Coldwell Banker, said a new zoning plan would not do much for coastal development if there were no solution to the water problem. “Without water permits, there will be no building. This is a serious problem and the water board, AyA, is not doing anything about the situation,” said Ms. Gray, speaking of the Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados.

Michael Simons with RE/MAX said he is tired of the same old talk. Nothing ever seems to get accomplish, referring to the coastal plan. Some clients of his have just given up and packed their bags and went home tired of waiting for permits.

No one was wowed by the presentation Friday. Almost everyone had doubts the canton has the ability to get a workable plan in place. However, the chit-chat between people seemed upbeat and positive.

A special commission appointed by the legislature in 2014 was shocked to learn some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful coastal areas belong in these cantons with no new zoning plan. They want to know the whereabouts of money given by the Inter‑American Development Bank for the mapping of the cantons and aiding in making new plats.

They believe the municipalities have been negligent in getting their jobs done. They also accuse the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (the tourism institute), the Instituto Nacional de Vivienda y Urbanismo (housing and urbanization institute), the Secretaría Técnica Nacional Ambiental (environmental mapkey021615agency), and the Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Mares (ministry of environment, energy and oceans) for sitting on their hands.

They noted big bucks were budgeted to get the job done, $92 million in fact. The Inter-American Development Bank, the leading source of development financing for Latin America and the Caribbean, put in $65 million.

The commission concluded that Costa Rica is in a planning crisis. It just cannot get things done. They noted only 31 zoning plans out of 114 have been completed in 10 years by the environmental agency. The investigators felt they are nitpicking projects to death. Literally, most end up closed and put in the historical archive.

Things really got messed up years back when President Abel Pacheco started an internal governmental civil war with his Executive Decree No. 31750-MINAE-TUR published May 14, 2004, in La Gaceta. Also involved in the action was the minister of Turismo, Rodrigo Castro, and the environmental minister, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez.

At stake was the definition of ecotourism.  The workers union and many environmentalists did not agree with the definition expressed in the decree. It modified the definition of ecotourism, saying the word meant something that contributes to the welfare of residents nearby and encouraged exploitation of the natural and cultural heritage. The discourse was all about cutting down trees.

Construction of beach developments in Costa Rica was flash-frozen. All work on zoning plans was tabled. The Sala VI began considering the complex case that pit the central government against its own employees and environmentalists. The court combined two cases together considering the same matter into the one now famous file 04-005607-0007-CO.

This case was finally resolved with resolution 16975 in November of 2008. It found Decree 31750-MINAE-TUR unconstitutional. This set the framework for the Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Mares to set up no-cutting zones for trees seriously limiting where developers could build in the maritime zone. Some concession property was determined 100% percent forest reserve with no building permitted at all.

All least with the decision, work on maritime zoning plans started again. However, most of the ones in process at the time had to be dumped or modified extensively.

Eleven of the most important cantons in Costa Rica have no viable zoning plans. A legislative commission concluding the country is in a planning crisis and is unable to get organized.

Hopefully, the Municipalidad de Carrillo is setting a positive example with its new plan. Fifteen days of public review started Friday.

Garland M. Baker, a certified international property specialist, is a 45-year resident and naturalized citizen of Costa Rica. His firm’s team provides multidisciplinary professional services to the country’s international community.  Reach him at  Baker has undertaken the research leading to these series of articles in conjunction with A.M. Costa Rica.  Find the collection at, a free reprint is available at the end of each article.  Copyright 2015, use without permission prohibited.

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