San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Development Threatens Beach Town (Part one in a two-part series)

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – As unpaved roadskick up dust next to partially built four-story condominiumbuildings and new shopping malls, it can behard to tell where the construction sites end and lifebegins in this booming Pacific coast town.In the past three years, the area has become ahotbed of largely foreign investment, yet pavedroads, sewage treatment and a sufficient source ofpotable water have yet to follow the luxury hotelsand full-service malls.As the constant presence of tractors and dumptrucks indicates, the construction boom is showinglittle sign of waning, to the horror of residents whoworry that too much of a good thing will bring thedownfall of all.WHILE concerned residents point fingers at theMunicipality of Santa Cruz, which is located approximately37 kilometers inland and has jurisdictionover the Tamarindo area, for allegedly carelessly granting construction permits, sometimesin violation of zoning laws, municipalofficials told The Tico Times they, too,are worried the area is threatened byexcessively rapid development.“We are arriving at chaos. But notchaos because of saturation, chaosbecause of poor planning,” said municipalengineer Miguel Torres.Longtime Tamarindo resident JerryHirsch agrees.“It is just uncontrolled growth,because no one is looking at the big picture,”he said.TAMARINDO development is notentirely lawless. The community has aregulatory plan, a precise document thatintends to regulate all new construction.However, the plan applies only to theMaritime Zone – the first 200 meters fromthe high-tide line – and only along a portionof the coast.Development in Tamarindo extendsfar beyond this limit. Outside the planboundaries are three urbanization areasthat offer some vague zoning regulations,such as density requirements and greenareas, according to Hirsch, a U.S. citizenand member of the TamarindoCommunity Improvement Association.THE association has formed a zoningcommittee to look into the status of theregulatory plan and what rules are definedunder the separate urbanization areas.The committee is also exploring thepossibility of revising the regulatory planto include all Tamarindo.However, Santa Cruz Mayor PastorGómez said government officials areinstead looking to include Tamarindo in aregulatory plan for the entire canton.In addition, the municipality agreedlast month to begin developing soil-useregulations or a regulatory plan for theareas around the Las Baulas NationalMarine Park – including Playa Grandeand Playa Langosta – for the conservationof turtle-nesting sites near Tamarindo.THE existing Tamarindo regulatoryplan limits buildings to three stories,according to Gómez.But a glance at the Tamarindo skyline,and at artists’ renderings pitching upcomingcondo developments, shows manyprojects exceed that limit.Not only is the regulatory plan limitedto a small area of Tamarindo, it does notapply to property registered before theMaritime Zone was formed by law in1976, according to engineer Torres.This has cleared the way for controversialprojects such as a series of seven-storycondominium towers planned onlymeters from the beach at what is presentlythe Tamarindo Resort.VIEW-BLOCKING towers are one ofthe greatest concerns among area residents.“Now, because land has been boughtup and there are threshold barriers, peopleare finding it more worth it to build up,instead of just out,” said U.S. citizen andTamarindo resident Bruce McKillican.According to Torres, the towers atTamarindo Resort could be built up tonine stories because, without the limitationsof the regulatory plan, the onlyheight restriction regulating the propertysays buildings are permitted up to 1.5times the width of the facing street, whichin this area is 18 meters.“They have also gotten special permissionfrom INVU (the Institute forHousing and Urbanization) and SETENA(the Technical Secretariat of theEnvironmental Ministry),” added MayorGómez.THE granting of such “special permissions”has left many residents inTamarindo crying foul play, and makingaccusations of corruption in the municipality.However, these critics admit theyhave no proof of corrupt acts.“I’m not going to say there are permitsbeing given illegally… but I know in thepast there have been a lot of irregularities,green areas have not been respected,parks have been sold to developers. Themunicipality has been part in this unfavorablebusiness,” said Belgian citizenGreit Depypere, president of theImprovement Association.Construction also often starts withoutproper permitting, Depypere added.Costa Ricans in the area also allegeforeigners are given preferred treatmentin the construction permitting process.MUNICIPAL officials Gómez andTorres denied allegations of corruption.However, Torres explained the speed inwhich a project receives approval doesdepend on resources.“There are no preferences, but if youare company with resources, you can payanother firm who knows the techniquesand approval processes. But if you are justcoming in, you don’t know. You oftenhave to return over and over again,because the project gets rejected for onereason or another,” he said.An Italian developer of one of at leasttwo shopping malls under construction inthe area said with the help of his lawyer, hehad no problem in the permitting process.DEVELOPERS and investors in thearea come from all over the world, andTamarindo is known for its populationthat is as much international as it is CostaRican. Santa Cruz municipal officialsestimate the beach town’s population atbetween 5,000-6,000.“People come here and think they canjust relax, and have the life they alwayswanted. But then they realize, things cost,people have to work. And they findinvestments, projects…” Hirsch said.With these new residents have comethe businesses to serve them – includingan English-language school attended bymore than 140 students, as well as dentists,doctors, and this year a gym.Three years ago, most of these serviceswere not available and their presencehas made the area more attractive toforeign residents, according to realtorLisa Simmons, with RE/MAX Ocean SurfRealty.“THINGS are selling faster than wecan build,” she said.At the Sunrise ResidentialCondominiums, an upper-end, four-storyproject, 45 of 48 units have been sold andthe buildings will not be complete for atleast six months, Simmons said.“It started since the Liberia airportbegan receiving international flights, thispace has been going for about a year and ahalf,” she said.Many residents believe the only way tohandle this explosive growth is to place amoratorium on new construction until thearea’s infrastructure can catch up. In themeantime, area businesses, communityassociations and unofficial “pirate” taxidrivers have taken infrastructure mattersinto their own hands and begun repairingdismal roads (TT, Dec. 24, 2004).BOTH Gómez and Torres said they arenot opposed to the idea of a moratorium.“It wouldn’t be a bad idea for themunicipality to say, ‘until such and such adate, we aren’t going to give any more permissions;we are going to take six monthsto better plan the area’,” Torres said.Gómez added, “but (asking for a moratorium)would be difficult to do, becausewe can’t claim there is no drinking water.There still is. We can’t claim the water iscontaminated, when it is not yet. But weare running a serious risk of these happeningin the very short term if we don’t dosomething.”(Next week, read about the lack of infrastructurein Tamarindo and what residentsand officials plan to do about it.)

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