San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ambitious Plan to Revamp Property Title Process

ALTHOUGHfree trade agreementsare seeminglyon hold for theduration of the currentCosta Ricaadministration, taxreform in a holdingpattern and runningout of fuel, alongwith major publicconcessions such asthe airport administrationand the vehicletechnical revision,under constant attack by unions andother special interests, we do seem to bemaking slight but promising progress in thearea of property titles, that is, real estatelegal security in Costa Rica.There is a very ambitious programbacked by the Inter-American DevelopmentBank (IADB) being implemented by theCosta Rican government that promises torevamp the entire legal framework for realestate holdings in Costa Rica.The official name is “Cadastre andRegistry Regularization Project.” It intendsto modernize the whole Real PropertyRecords system, clarify property rights andimplement an efficient property tax system.FUNDING is set for a total of $92 millionguaranteed by a law passed inDecember 2001 approving a loan agreementwith the IADB for $65 million with theremaining $27 million to be invested by theCosta Rican government.The project is being planned for implementationthrough four main components,which include an aerial survey of the entirecountry, a comprehensive reform of all lawsaffecting real property rights, a national programfor alternative resolution of propertydisputes and a support program includingpersonnel training and computer equipmentfor the 81 municipalities that collect propertytaxes in Costa Rica (TT, October 3, 2003).How did all this get started? Well it wasn’tpublic outcry here nor Costa Rican governmentinitiative, as far as I can tell.Actually, one night at a U.S. Embassyreception (a few years ago already) an official“in the know” explained that the programcould be seen as a consequence of afair number of U.S. citizens having for morethan a decade suffered the vagaries of fuzzylaw and poor enforcement involving squatterinvasions of property and/or governmentexpropriations.Some of these investors insisted on theirU.S. congressmen taking a hand in the matter,which resulted not only in political pressurethrough diplomatic channels, but also inour case as it were, a directive to the U.S.Treasury Department topromote the IADB programfor Costa Ricawhich we are talkingabout today.THIS type of programis not unique toCosta Rica, but fromwhat I have heard, it maybe the most comprehensivein the region. And,although it could be seenas an imposition, Ihaven’t met a CostaRican official involved orinformed, yet, who doesn’t agree it is hightime we cleaned out the skeletons from thecloset and stepped into the 21st century onthis subject.To get a better handle on why property orland titles in Costa Rica (although generallyclear and secure) too often show up lackingin precision or are in conflict with otherrecorded titles, we need to understand thatthere is no actual national cadaster, or compositeof land surveys. This fact is despitethat by law there is a National CadasterDepartment that processes tens of thousandsof plats or plot maps every year.What? Hold on, what I mean is thatCosta Rica does not have any form of“mosaic” of all the individual plats or surveysrelating to all the individual recordedtitles in the public records office. There are afew areas that have been surveyed comprehensivelyin the past, such surveys are nowvery outdated, and a few partial municipalefforts in this regard and that is it.Now it isn’t too hard to understand howunscrupolous operators can take advantageof this relatively “blind” side of the justicesystem in particular and attempt and oftensucceed in recording less-than-clear titles toproperty that may not entirely belong tothem.SO, enter the age of GeographicInformation Systems (GIS) that can handlethe amount of data and updating necessaryto support a comprehensive and transparentproperty record system for one. Othertremendously significant applications in taxadministration, public infrastructure, disasterprevention and relief, and environmentalmonitoring, to name a few, will be poweredup also.Being that the program doesn’t have anactive constituency, it has moved along byshear inertia it seems, with the IADB quietlynudging it along now and then, and nocurrent strong political support. BesidesIADB pressure, only twoother factors seem tohave worked to keep it ontrack.On the one hand, thefew government consultantshired to run the programsince they, after all,have a personal interest inits continuance. And onthe other, count in a definiteshove now and thenfrom the private sectorrepresented by the unionof business chambersumbrella group and CostaRican Lawyers’ Association, particularlyvolunteer lawyers putting in the time andeffort required to keep at least some publicoversight and participation in the mix.CONCRETELY, and despite a delay ofmore than 100% in most aspects of the programexecution to date, the most significantcontracts to be awarded this year, hopefully,are:- Aerial photo survey of all rural areas ata 1:25,000 scale by a specialized NASAplane in conjunction with the NationalCenter for High Technology, to cost about$2 million.- Aerial photo survey of all urban areasat a 1:6,000 scale up for bidding between $2-3 million.- Orthophotographic data processing togenerate the basic GIS database worthbetween $8-10 million.- On-the-ground survey work to tie in allgeographic and cadastral information, tocost around $17 million.- Comprehensive legal studies to draft alegislative proposal to harmonize all lawsand regulations dealing with all real propertyissues and the creation of a UnifiedProperty Record, for an estimated cost of$450,000.Thomas Burke is a member of the CostaRican Lawyers’ Association. He coordinatesthe Subcommittee for Real Estate LegalSecurity at the Costa Rican-AmericanChamber of Commerce and represents theCosta Rican Union of Private-SectorChambers and Associations (UCCAEP) inthe Regularization of the Cadastre andProperty Registry Program. Contact him at236-8024 or e-mail

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