San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Zoning Plans: Be Careful What You Wish For

PICTURESQUE little towns – featuringMain Streets lined with restaurants andbars, side streets sprinkled with boutiquesand bed and breakfasts, residences surroundingit all, and large box stores and officebuildings kept to the outskirts – don’t justhappen. There are a thousand forces thathave made them happen.Boil all the city planning and zoninglaws that keep high rises away from single familyhomes, parking lots behind buildings,and schools in the center of residential areas,into one essential document, and you have aregulatory plan.But investors beware. While zoning lawscan bring order to chaos, they can also keepproperty owners from developing their landas they wish and as they can afford.“Regulatory plans are good things, theyare a very healthy idea. But the problem is,every municipality makes its own regulatoryplan to its own benefit. For example, theyonly want upper class neighborhoods,” saidEmilia Piza, president of the Costa RicanReal Estate Chamber.Piza explained that by putting limits onthe size, height and number of homes thatcan be placed on a certain size lot, regulatoryplans greatly limit who can afford theproperty.For example, under Escazú’s new regulatoryplan, in some areas a 600-squaremeter(6,500 square foot) lot can only haveone house. With property prices at $100 asquare meter, that equates to a $60,000 lot –far beyond the price range of a middle-classfamily hoping to build a$150,000 home, Pizasaid.“It really worries me.We are facing a seriousproblem in finding landfor middle-class families,”she said.BUT broker MarilynHenderson is worriedabout the future withoutzoning laws. In manycommunities, the only legal way to limitwhat type of construction is built on a certainproperty is by placing restrictions in theproperty title.“In other words, in a residential development,a person can buy a lot and put a businessnext to a beautiful home,” saidHenderson, who owns Carico Real Estateand has worked in Costa Rica for 27 years.Henderson worries about communitieslike Nosara in Guanacaste, a province in thenorthwestern corner of Costa Rica, wherethere are currently at least 250 homes and noregulatory plan.ABOUT one-third of Costa Rican cantonshave regulatory plans. However manyare 20-25 years old, according to HectorChavarría, of the planning department of theInstitute for Housing andUrbanization (INVU).City planning is envogue, Chavarría said.But much involves surface-level improvementslike parks and pedestrianwalks, he added.“What is reallyimportant is when peoplelook at the big pictureregarding the environment,transportation and viability,” he said.In developing a regulatory plan, municipalitiesmust develop politics of development,conduct population studies, determineallowed uses of land and height limits, studytraffic circulation, identify where to locatepublic services like schools and hospitals,analyze where and how to build infrastructurelike sewage system and trash disposal,and recognize areas that need protection.The process takes about a year.While there has been a large push forregulatory plans for all Costa Rican cantons,particularly in the Central Valley, Chavarríaworries municipalities are taking the wrongapproach.“There needs to be an integrated vision,”he said. “In the metropolitan area, Moraviacan’t just have a plan and Goicoechea somethingcompletely different. They need towork together for an overall vision.”IN addition to Goicoechea and Moravia,in the Central Valley, San José, Curridabatand La Union have regulatory plans. SanPedro, Escazú and Alajuela are also in variousstages of the process.Many beach cantons have regulatoryplans, but most are outdated, Chavarría said.“The plans of Samara and Tamarindo (inGuanacaste) are a complete disaster. Theyhave the Maritime Zone (where constructionis prohibited without special governmentpermission), but you can’t even see thebeach. There is no real vision for the future,”he said.Furthermore, Chavarría agrees that toooften only certain financial interests aretaken into consideration in the creation of a regulatory plan, “instead of the public interest,” he said.ALTHOUGH it is growing quickly – with new hotels and homes popping up everyyear – Jacó has no regulatory plan, or any goal for one anytime soon.“It is too expensive to make one,” said broker Daphne Rochester, owner of PacificProperties.INVU estimates it costs between $45,000-70,000 to developing a regulatory plan.Instead, the patterns of Jacó growth have been defined by the requirement that buildingplans must be approved by the municipality, according to Rochester.“For example, they are not going to put a church next to a disco. They are trying to keepthe commercial growth on the main street, and as it saturates it flows onto the side streets.“But since there are not strict laws, it makes it easier, a person can buy a beach lot andbuild a hotel,” she said.Henderson explained that zoning laws depend on what you are looking for.“There are some people who come in and think it is the wild wild west and don’t wantrestrictions. Other people go into a gated community and are happy to pay a higher pricefor the assurance that there will be no business next to their homes,” she said.

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