San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Maritime Zone Law Brings Down the House

As some have had to learn the hard way, Costa Rica is serious about its beaches. The number-one draw for the country’s booming tourism industry is its beaches, and, on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, all are public property under the Maritime Zone Law.

The law establishes a 200-meter swath of state land that runs parallel along both coasts, known as the Zona Marítima Terrestre (Maritime Zone). In the first 50 meters of the zone – measured starting from the high-tide mark – construction of any kind is prohibited (with some exceptions, such as lifeguard towers and docks). In the next 150 meters, businesses can receive concessions for use of the land, but only after an arduous, expensive and extensive application process.

While some beachfront residences and businesses that existed before the law went into effect in 1977 have been grandfathered in, others have not. Coastal municipalities, which are charged with enforcing the Maritime Zone Law, began tearing down structures within the zone last year, leaving many business owners fuming.

The owners of Hotel Playa Junquillal (, on the northern Pacific coast, took a different approach.

“Half our restaurant area and three cabinas (were in the Maritime Zone),” said Steve Gordy, a partner in the hotel. “We did it voluntarily. We knew we were on the list.”

Preempting municipal bulldozers, the owners decided to remove the offending structures themselves, saving materials such as roof tiles and preventing additional damage to other, attached structures.

“I’ve seen pictures of other (demolitions) that they’ve done, and they’re not respectful,” Gordy said. “They don’t have to be respectful. They want it done quick.”

Gordy and others managed to beat the eight-day deadline they were given by the municipality to tear down the cabinas.

“We complied with everything and then some, because we didn’t try and fight it. We just did what the law requires,” Gordy said.

They salvaged materials such as wood, roof tiles and electric cables, but had to go through the very difficult process of removing the septic tank that had been in place since the hotel and restaurant’s construction more than 20 years ago.

“(The hotel) is kind of a landmark,” said Gordy, who first started visiting the beach and hotel more than 13 years ago.He says that the destruction of the rooms has had a big impact on business – they rented for $45 night, and were torn down just a few months before the start of the tourism high season in December.

“We lost that income and whatever income off the restaurant, because guests usually eat two out of three meals here, and have drinks at the bar,” Gordy said. “We only made ¢1 million ($2,000) profit, and last year we did at least double or triple that.”

Gordy worries about the future, too. With the destruction of half the restaurant’s seating area, what seating is left is more exposed to rain.

“When the rainy season comes, we will lose half of the seating that’s left. We don’t know what we’re going to do with the rainy season,” he said.

Gordy says he accepts the law, supporting “the idea that they keep the coastline clean,” but only as long as it goes “from Joe Schmo homeowner all the way to J.W.Marriott.”

“It has to go from the poor person living in a shack all the way to the guy paying $2,000 a night,” Gordy said. “But I see lots of stuff that’s more illegal than ours, that hasn’t been torn down. Money can change things. If you don’t have the money to fight this, you’re going to lose it and still get torn down. If the law is a law, then you have to enforce it for everybody.”

Despite his frustrations, Gordy sees a positive side to the ordeal, starting with the fact that, thanks to the restaurant’s business, the owners didn’t have to fire anybody.

“It’s not a total loss. It stinks to lose something, but you can play with it and make it look better than it was before. You’ve got to look at the future, otherwise we’d still be sitting here crying,” he said.

Rolling with the punches, the owners have planted coconut trees and other plants in front of the restaurant to make the beach part of their seating area, but without any permanent structures.

“Everybody seems to think it’s a lot nicer.We’ve got clients who have been coming for 12 or 14 years who say it looks better,” Gordy said. “It’s almost brought the beach closer.”

The Basics of the Maritime Zone Law

The most important aspect is that the first 50 meters inland from the high-tide mark is the Public Zone, and cannot be privately owned or built upon, except under special, legally indicated circumstances (such as docks, marinas, lifeguard towers and lighthouses, to name a few).

The next 150 meters make up the Restricted Zone, where construction is allowed only with a concession granted by the municipality; concessions are granted only after an extensive application process and only in areas that have a plan regulador, which is a special zoning district.

Exceptions are made when the 200 meters of coast lie within a city’s limits, such as in the Caribbean port city of Limón or Puntarenas, on the central Pacific coast. In addition, properties that were registered with the government before the law’s passage in 1977 are exempt. However, many buildings were built long before the law was passed, but because of their remoteness, the news of the law did not reach their communities and property owners did not know they had to register.

The responsibility of enforcing the law lies with the municipality, which has the right to tear down offending structures, with the expense of the demolition falling to the property’s owner.

For more information, contact the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, which has posted the text of the Maritime Zone Law (Law of the Maritime and Terrestrial Zone) on its Web site at


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