Authorities, Property Owners Clash, Beach Demolitions Continue
UP and down the Pacific coast, municipalities are taking steps to tear down hotels, homes, restaurants and bars, some of which have been around for decades and others that were recently built, all in the name of the public good.Authorities are demolishing the buildings in response to an order from the Comptroller General’s Office for municipalities to guarantee that the 50-meter coastal strip reserved for public use is being used for just that, and not for private structures.So far, three municipalities – Santa Cruz and Nicoya in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and Golfito in the Southern Zone – have been reprimanded by the Comptroller’s Office for their failure to protect the maritime zone (ZMT). However, officials from the office said they are aware that violations exist throughout the country’s coastal zone. Similar orders could be issued for other municipalities, if resources at the Comptroller’s Office suffice.THE Comptroller’s reports were issued last year, but municipalities are only recently starting to take action.Since issuing hundreds of notifications to property owners with structures illegally built in the public zone, they have faced a barrage of appeals on the municipal level and with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV).Under the Maritime Zone law, the first 200 meters of land from the high-tide line belongs to the state. The first 50 of these meters are considered public terrain and cannot be developed. The remaining 150 meters can be developed privately, for hotels, restaurants or homes, through concessions granted by municipalities.Despite this law, hotel swimming pools, restraining walls to protect homes from waves, restaurant patios and sometimes entire buildings are located in the 50-meter zone.FURTHERMORE, hundreds of hotels and homes line the 150-meter zone without legal concessions, or with concessions but paying fees on this prime real estate as low as $40 a year, anomalies the comptroller has also ordered be corrected.While many make the claim that the structures were there before the law, passed in 1977, and are therefore “grand-fathered in,” such exemptions only apply to Costa Ricans who are from the area and have lived in the maritime zone for more than 10 years, and non-locals who have lived there since before the law took effect, according to the Comptroller’s Office.Officials in the office told The Tico Times in an e-mail that while the appeals property owners have filed were expected – considering the municipalities’ lack of control for years – they should be resolved within a matter of months.Verny Cordero, legal counsel for the Municipality of Santa Cruz, said the law is on the municipalities’ side. “By the end of the year we will have a rather long list of planned demolitions,” he said, adding that the list will include part of Tamarindo’s luxury Hotel Diriá and part of Cabinas La Palapa, down the beach.Approximately 16 structures have already been demolished in Santa Cruz, according to Mayor Pastor Gómez. While the legal department tries to put a year of appeals in order, Gómez said they are also taking a different route of action against the remaining 60-70 structures that are partially in the public zone (with the rest in the 150-meter concession area).“We have decided to notify all of the people who are encroaching on the 50-meter zone and give them eight days to put themselves in compliance or we will cancel their concessions,” he told The Tico Times this week. “We will give the concessions to people who are willing to comply.”He said this approach will save themunicipality from having to pay for thedemolitions and subsequent beachcleanups, which they cannot afford.Although the law requires the violator topay for the cost of demolition, putting thatinto practice is complicated, Gómez said.THE small, affordable HotelJunquillal, on the beach of the same name,recently “voluntarily” tore down three ofits four cabins in the public zone. The hotel’s popular bar and restaurant San Bernardo, which has been on the beach for more than 35 years, was also reduced by 75%, leaving only three tables.“They told me that a truck comes and just bulldozes everything, not just the part in the public zone; they said that is what has happened in other places. Our lawyer told us that either they do it without care or we do it and try to maintain the part of the restaurant that we can,” hotel administrator Georgina Solórzano said.“We have given up on the cabinas, we are selling the beds and we don’t have a septic tank anymore for the fourth cabin. But we are keeping the restaurant. People live off this; I live off this,” Solórzano added. No employees have been laid off, but hours have been reduced, she said.With critics accusing municipalities of only taking action against small homes and businesses in the maritime zone, Solórzano said she hopes the rules are applied to all hotels and restaurants in the public zone, particularly larger, more expensive hotels.“It’s not bribes or anything keeping them from being touched. They just have greater resources to file appeals,” she said. “But they are just delaying their fate.”IN Nicoya, most of the problems are with houses, often second homes or rental properties; four have been demolished so far and more are expected in the coming weeks as appeals are resolved, according to Fabiola Quesada, head of the municipality’s Maritime Zone department.Many of the more than 100 cases in Nicoya are a matter of sundecks, ranchos or restraining walls in the 50-meter zone. “It is sad. People at the beach have nowhere to go when the high tide comes.The beach disappears up to these private walls, so the public can’t go any furtherand has to leave,” she said.Nicoya faces the particular problem that some of these structures may have been built legally outside of the 50-meter zone, but ended up inside the zone because of sand erosion. These cases may receive special treatment, including relocation of residents to concession land, based on how long residents have lived there.Quesada said that public facilities, such as a community center, facing demolition will also receive “beneficial treatment,” although they must also eventually be removed.Quesada hopes the comptroller issues similar reports for other municipalities. “These types of reports… set things in action so that past errors are corrected. Past governments did not correctly apply the maritime law,” she said.SUCH is the case in Golfito, where City Council President Rigoberto Núñez says the municipality is to blame “for erroneously allowing these constructions.” So far Golfito has taken a different approach to the Comptroller General’s orders, trying to legalize properties rather than tear them down.“The municipality can’t just go and demolish buildings; it would be very costly,” Nuñez said.Removing people from their homes would create a large social problem in Golfito, he said, adding, “There is nowhere for them to go. This is a poor community.”NÚÑEZ was speaking in particular about the community of Kilometer 5, southeast of downtown Golfito, where some 1,200 people, primarily subsistence fishermen, live in stilted homes along the waters edge. Although some people have lived there for more than 30 years, many more came a decade ago when the area was planned as a housing project, explained Katia Chavarría, spokeswoman for the Kilometer 5 development committee. “The municipality gave us the okay to live here. They told us it can’t be just cardboard houses, and we had to build septic tanks,” she said.Officials are trying to officially incorporate Kilometer 5 into Golfito, which, as a city, is exempt from the maritime law, although beaches are still under the public domain.As for the rest of the beaches in the Golfito area cited for violations, including Playa Blanca, Matapalo and Playa Zancudo, the municipality has been slow to act, according to the comptroller’s office, citing instability in the municipal administration.
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