TILARÁN, Guanacaste A handful of lavish real estate developments that promise to erect hundreds of new constructions along the shores of LakeArenal here in northwestern Costa Rica has local residents here buzzing.
The banks of this mystical windswept lake have remained more or less green in recent years, despite booms in Costa Rica s tourism and real estate sectors that have completely transformed the face of many tourism-attracting communities.
All along the northern and central Pacific coast and in the booming western Central Valley, for instance, municipalities have been digging scant funds out of municipal purses to try to control recent rapid growth.
Around LakeArenal, there are no ultraluxury resorts or multimillion-dollar hotel projects in the works. Still, residents are concerned about developers coming in with plans to build up along the shores slopes above a precious Costa Rican resource.
We re trying to catch this at an early stage we can t lose the lake, said Sandy Shaw, secretary of the Tilarán-based environmental group Fuentes Verdes.
Fuentes Verdes, government officials and other area residents are making lots of noise over some lavish lakeside developments planned here, which promise to change the face of Arenal. They say development is happening largely unregulated and is a threat to LakeArenal, a vital national water and energy resource that lies at the bottom of a valley with a bowl-like watershed that leads into the manmade reservoir.
The Public Health Ministry has been finding more and more livestock fecal matter in the lake, and has received unconfirmed reports of human fecal matter because of faulty septic tanks.
Concerned residents also say developments are being built near fault lines, on slippery slopes known for landslides.
Fuentes Verdes alleges that though government authorities haven t given the green light to many developments, ground is being broken.
They are going to double the number of houses along (some stretches) of the lake s shore. But where is the planning? Where is the sewage going to go? It s a serious question that the different authorities need to answer, said Rodolfo Wattson, an area engineer and agent for the National Insurance Institute (INS). Wattson said he has turned down requests from several developers to insure their projects, though he wouldn t get into the specifics of the cases.
In the canton of Tilarán, which includes 75% of the lake and lakeside land, the zoning plan applies only to the central district. Four years after the canton s environmental plan called for the municipality to come up with a more comprehensive zoning plan, it hasn t happened.
Government authorities here are now scurrying to pass a more comprehensive zoning plan via a decree, and have put together an inter-institutional commission that meets occasionally, according to local Health Ministry representative Hilda Barrantes.
And based upon a recent Fuentes Verdes complaint, the Environment Ministry s Technical Secretariat (SETENA) says it has launched a study into which developments have permits and which don t.
Though unfettered development is nothing new in Costa Rica, area residents say Arenal is different.
With development projects that will change the face of Arenal, it isn t just the lake s beauty at stake: Arenal is a vital water and energy lifeline for the country. It feeds three hydroelectric plants that provide for roughly a third of the nation s energy.
Also, the Guanacaste agricultural industry, a massive employer, takes from the lake the water it needs to grow crops in its dry climate.
A dry rainy season has put extra pressure on the lake s reserves, demonstrating just how precious the lake is as a resource (see sidebar).
But it isn t just unusually dry weather that has Arenal-area government officials and environmentalists scratching their heads.
In June 2005, fish in nearby farms whose ponds are supplied with Arenal lake water in the rural Guanacaste town Cañas suddenly started dying.
Thousands of fish croaked in a matter of weeks, costing the country s largest tilapia fish exporter huge losses, forcing it to lay off workers and sending ripples through rural Guanacaste.
Authorities pointed the finger at the bacteria Piscirickettisia salmonis, which was found in the fish tanks, and which was blamed on conditions in LakeArenal, the daily La Nación reported.
Though there was never a conclusive report on how the bacteria appeared in the fish ponds, the scare raised many eyebrows in the Arenal community. It caught the attention of environmentalists who say the sudden fish deaths demonstrate the fragility and impact that changes in LakeArenal can have.
That showed the importance of following up on possible lake contamination, Barrantes said.
She did a recent study of 13 dairy farms located along creeks that flow into the lake. Nearly three-quarters of the dairy farms have contamination problems resulting in livestock fecal matter in the lake, the report concluded. Barrantes said the ministry has also found traces in the lake of chemicals commonly used to wash clothes and dishes.
Developers vs. Environmentalists
In a Sept. 28 complaint sent to SETENA, Shaw alleged that several projects in the zone have started moving ground without proper permits. She was referring to an Aug. 22 letter she sent to the National Institute of Housing and Urbanization (INVU) Director of Urbanization Francisco Mora, alleging INVU s records show only one project, called Buena Vista 1, having received the proper permits to start construction.
One way developers avoid having to go through INVU is by having lots larger than 500 square meters, which are considered agricultural land, she said.
This is open season for investors, she said, bumping along pothole-filled lakeside roads in her vintage SUV.
Sonia Espinosa, SETENA representative in Tilarán, said the agency has been visiting some of the project sites in Tilarán and is working on a report on area construction based on Shaw s complaint. Permits are a prerequisite for construction, she said.
We have to review all that, Espinosa said.
The Fuentes Verdes complaint says the lakeside development Buena Vista 6 is being planned near a volcanic fault line, on steep land in an area known for landslides and erosion because of the land s top layer of sand and ash (Arenal, in Spanish, means sandy area ).
It s absolutely crazy to permit any type of urbanization here, Shaw said, driving through Buena Vista 6. As is apparent by the spurting lava that can be seen at nearby Arenal Volcano, the area has a long history of volcanic activity. Also, a 1973 earthquake prompted landslides that caused nearly two dozen deaths.
Buena Vista developer J.P. Wilson, from California, says seismic activity hasn t stopped growth in other places, such as Southern California.
The seismic requirements for construction here are more stringent than in California, he told The Tico Times.
At Buena Vista 6, like many other developments in the area, workers have already started moving land and making roads and a bridge in the development. Wilson said the development is in the permitting process.
Just down the street, the Turtle Cove Lake Club project has carved out flat lots on steep hills, and has a dock floating in the lake.
Turtle Cove developer Kendall Sanborn said part of the discrepancy between area environmentalists and developers like himself may be the way developments are advertised. For instance, on Turtle Cove s Web site, the project is advertised as including a full service marina. In reality, there are no permits for a marina, and Sanborn has been trying to get a permit for the floating dock that is already in the water.
I guess I should ve advertised mine as a dock instead of a marina, said the Atlanta based developer, who has been in Costa Rica seven years. Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) representative in Arenal Julio Quiros said the project has the permits it needs to start construction.
He said several other projects have been breaking ground without proper permits. Unfortunately, we ve presented (three) complaints for projects that have been developed without the required environmentalimpact studies, he said.
He said one problem is that the municipality has been giving construction permits to projects that SETENA hasn t approved. Buena Vista 6, for example, was given construction permits to build two houses and an entrance, though SETENA was never consulted, he said.
Tilarán Mayor Jovel Arias admitted this has been a problem recently, but assured it will no longer happen.
We have a big future here with big investors who want to develop the area, but we want it to be a controlled development, he said.
Norman Liszt, another area real estate developer, said the recent push to regulate growth is costing developers.
We didn t used to worry about construction permits, but now we re having a lot of people checking, he said, There s nothing negative about it, but it s increasing the cost of construction.
Wilson said his company is paying as much as $15,000 a month to the municipality for permitting.
Shaw said the fact that developers fill the government s purse with permit fees is a conflict of interest that discourages authorities from thinking about conservation.
Arias, who stepped down from his mayoral seat a couple of weeks ago to launch his full-time campaign for re-election, said he couldn t immediately provide numbers on how much income the municipality has received for permits from developers.
Municipal construction permits cost an amount equal to 1% of the value of the project, according to the Costa Rican Construction Chamber.