PLAYA HERMOSA, Puntarenas – Legendary surf roared beneath an inky, star-speckled sky as area residents, angered by the proposed development of two 14-story towers nearby, took turns speaking in the dimly lit, open-air bar beside Cabinas Las Olas.
“Why can’t they do this in a respectful manner,” said Andrea Díaz, owner of nearby Waves Costa Rica surf school and tours, sweat beading from her brow and dripping past her nose. “I live off tourism. People are here because they can see turtles, iguanas, macaws, not to be in the shade of a 14-story building.”
The heat, even at night, is as much a reality as impending development along the sultry central Pacific coastline around Jacó, and as residents pulled sticky, sweat-soaked shirts from their bodies, the discussion kept pace with the temperature.
The project, known as the DiamondBeachTowers, would cover 11 acres and offer complete on-site amenities, including 159 units, 24-hour security and concierge, two full-size lighted tennis courts, beachfront golf-practice facilities, a restaurant, a modern health spa and fitness center, a game room, movie theater and party hall, according to a recent advertisement in The Tico Times.
Units in the towers would start at $575,000 and rise to $2.5 million for 10,000-square-foot penthouses with private elevator access in the upper levels.
Residents are concerned such towers – which would rank as two of the tallest buildings on the west coast between the port town of Puntarenas and Panama – might impede the arrival of endangered olive ridley turtles in the adjacent Playa Hermosa Turtle Refuge, water birds in nearby wetlands, and, just as importantly, they say, tourists and surfers to their “quiet” beach.
“It’s David versus Goliath,” said Esteban Mora, general manager of The Backyard hotel, located nearby, and a leader of the newly formed community association. “It won’t be easy, and we will have to work together to fight this.”
Playa Hermosa, unlike Jacó to the north, has changed relatively little over the years –most of the construction is along a short stretch of coconut palm-lined beach on the picturesque north end, where small one- and two-story hotels and cabins are tucked neatly in the shady over-story, lights kept dim at night to avoid disturbing the nesting turtles, which last year numbered over 2,000 in the nearby refuge, according to park guard Marco García.
Here, constant surf churns humid salt air that envelops the rich volcanic beach in a hazy, tropical mist – creating a perfect setting that has long made it one of the most popular surf destinations in the country, Díaz said.
The twin towers development, while ambitious, is not unique to Costa Rica, and is one of many proposed developments at Hermosa. Construction is booming along the Pacific coast provinces – the number of square meters built rose 137% in the province of Puntarenas in 2006 compared to the year before (TT Jan. 25).
By the Books
In a meeting at the DiamondBeachTowers modern office off Paseo Colón, in downtown San José, Plácido Benito, sales and marketing manager for the project, set the air-conditioning to “cool” and told The Tico Times that such controversy is hardly surprising.
“Everyone has a right to make their points. But if we followed only the beliefs of people who didn’t want to develop, a lot of hotels wouldn’t exist in Costa Rica,” said Benito, a native Costa Rican who said he worked for years as a national park guide.
“We are 100% in favor of protecting the environment.”
Such a development, he said, would help to create jobs and attract more tourists to the region, who would in turn spend money at locally owned shops and restaurants.
“Think about how many surfboards the people at Playa Hermosa would rent if this goes through,” agreed managing director Murad Karimi, son of developer Ramzan Karimi, of Atlanta, in the U.S. state of Georgia. “I know I would rent from them.”
Company lawyer Leonardo Salazar, who also met with The Tico Times, said the project has yet to receive any permits, but has begun the process required by the Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA).
“We are very comfortable with the fact that we are following all legal requirements,” he said. “This is all subject to environmental review. If someone has a problem with it, they are welcome to put it forward.”
Salazar and Benito brushed off allegations from Playa Hermosa residents that a bulldozer on the property has already excavated a beachfront sand dune and constructed roads on the property without appropriate permits.
“Everything we have done there is strictly a part of the environmental-impact study process,” Salazar said.
According to Salazar, the development company, Mosaic International, is a charter member of the “For a Better Jacó” campaign, which seeks to improve the “security and beauty” of the region.
“We want to make the beach more beautiful, and safe. If it’s not that way, our clients won’t want to buy from us,” he said.
Billboards and ads – in The Tico Times, at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in Alajuela west of San José, and at the proposed site at Hermosa – describe the development as “Modern Refinement… Naturally.”
They also offer “Pre-construction special” deals to prospective clients – though construction permits, according to GarabitoMunicipality official Vanesa González, have yet to be issued.
Benito points out such specials are common practice in the real estate industry – a necessary method for securing loans for high-price investments. Such actions, however, enrage some Hermosa residents, who believe such a development would be in violation of Costa Rican law.
According to Diáz and others, the proposed construction site is widely recognized as an humedal, or wetland, and floods over completely during the rainy season.
SETENA inspector Francisco Fernández, who visited the property Feb. 8, told The Tico Times that Costa Rican law protects wetlands from development, though he would not comment on whether or not the property is a wetland zone.
Developers, however, insist it is not.
At the Playa Hermosa community meeting last week, hotel owners wondered if the town’s already stressed water supply would be adequate for such a massive development.
Surfers worried that re-routing a wetland and its associated stream, which flows into the Pacific, could change the dynamics of the surf break – a near perfect blend of slope, sand and surf that attracts the International Quicksilver Surf Championships each August.
Others questioned the proximity of the towers – 14-stories and encased in sprawling picture windows – to the turtle refuge.
Wouldn’t the turtles become disoriented by the lights, or, even worse, stop visiting the beach all together, as they have at other more developed beaches along the coast?
According to Gerardo Chavarría, administrator of the adjacent refuge, the proposed towers would likely pose a serious threat.
“We are very concerned, first because it is a wetland, and there shouldn’t be construction there. But also because we feel the development must be more moderate, limited to two stories, or eight meters. Buildings and lights that tall would be the end of the arrival of the turtles,” he said.
In a note he sent to SETENA last week, Chavarría asked that he and the park authority be consulted in any further development plans along the beach, to ensure the wellbeing of the turtles.
According to municipality building official González, Hermosa’s plan regulador, or zoning plan – which restricts the height of buildings and the type of development allowed – applies only to the very northern end of the beach, where small, one- and twostory hotels are largely hidden from view by beach-front palms. The rest of the beach, she said, is not governed by any type of zoning plan.
Regardless, SETENA inspector Fernández told The Tico Times that the SETENA review process – a seven-part, comprehensive look at every environmental aspect of a project in consultation with various government agencies, is far from over.
“We’re still in the very early stages,” he said, citing the fact that the final approval – or disapproval – could take six months or more.
Meanwhile, Benito and the developers, confident in the legality and environmental sensitivity of the project, launched a Web site this week, www.diamondbeachtowers.com, including a promise to open a live “construction cam” to allow prospective buyers to watch the towers rise.
“Costa Rica is a country of laws, and we as Costa Ricans,must respect these laws. It is not the people – for or against it – who decide whether this project will pass, it is our laws,” Benito said.