San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Osa Council Declares Building Moratorium

Real estate development on the southern Pacific Fila Costeña mountain range could come to a grinding halt in late April if a moratorium on construction permits goes into effect as planned.

Concerned about the environmental effects of rampant development with little oversight in the southern Pacific coastal region, the Osa Municipal Council unanimously agreed to suspend the approval of a variety of construction permits for the mountain range until a canton-wide zoning plan, or plan regulador, goes into effect. The zoning plan is being drafted with help from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and the environmental organization The Nature Conservancy, and is expected to be ready in January 2008.

The council announced the ban this week; it is supposed to go into effect 10 business days after it is published in the official government newspaper La Gaceta, which was expected today. The public has those 10 business days to submit written suggestions, complaints or other input on the resolution to the municipality, which will take them into consideration before finalizing and applying the measure.

“We’re not going back on this,” said Eugenio Najera, president of the Municipal Council. “People are abusing their permits, and the municipality is not able to stop it because we do not have sufficient personnel.”

By temporarily halting future projects, the municipality will be able to dedicate all its resources to regulating ongoing projects, added Osa Mayor Jorge Alberto Cole. The municipality currently has only one inspector to cover the entire canton, which encompasses 2,384 square kilometers (920 square miles). Though much of the canton is national park and protected land in the OsaPeninsula, jutting into the Pacific Ocean from Costa Rica’s southwest corner, it also stretches north to Dominical, and the Fila Costeña has no such protected status.

“The municipality is a poor municipality,” Cole explained. “Right now, it is impossible to manage an adequate oversight (of development), and until we can, we aren’t going to give more construction permits.”

Construction projects already under way that have all their permits in order will be allowed to continue, he said, but will be “put under a microscope.” Small-scale projects, such as individual homes, will be given permits if they meet all legal requirements, and will also fall under heavy scrutiny, the mayor added.

The ban includes permits for carving terraces and building foundations, moving earth or opening roads.

Developers and real estate agents contacted by The Tico Times this week had not yet heard about the plan, and were not pleased by the news.

“I think this would be the most despicable thing a high official could do,” said Robert Shannon, owner of the regional real estate office South Pacific Real Estate Services. “Why don’t they shut down the people who are violating the laws? There’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things.”

If the moratorium is applied, Osa would be the second municipal government to put a stop to construction in its territory (though limited only to the 60-kilometer stretch of mountain range, and not the entire canton) in the past month. On March 13, the Municipality of Belén, in the province of Heredia north of San José, announced it would stop granting construction permits for housing, condominium and industry projects deemed “too large” while it gets a zoning plan ready (TT, March 16). Belén is also preparing master plans for the canton’s sewers, gutters, roads and public services.

In addition to drafting its zoning plan, Osa is working to eliminate tax evasion, which is at about 56% in the canton. The municipality has struck an agreement with Banco Nacional to charge and collect taxes through accounts at the state-owned bank, and use special agencies to collect from delinquent taxpayers, council president Najera said.

Mayor Cole said the municipality would also focus on heavy machinery operators as a way to both control construction and increase revenues, as he believes many of the machines are not registered with the municipality, meaning operators haven’t paid the proper operating permit fees to the local government.With more funds, Cole said, the municipality will be able to regulate construction more efficiently.

Environment Vs. Business

The moratorium announcement follows a deluge of complaints that development in the region is getting out of hand (TT,March 16).

The Fila Costeña mountain range, which parallels the Pacific coast between Dominical and Cortés, just north of the OsaPeninsula, feeds local communities with potable water, and pours precipitation into rivers that feed the BallenaNationalMarinePark and Sierpe-Térraba National Wetlands, a delicate ecosystem that includes the largest mangrove forest in the country.

None of the mountain range is protected, and officials and environmentalists from the region have complained of a recent boom in real estate development projects there. The projects are mostly luxury condominiums, built high on the mountains where valuable ocean views are plentiful and the environmental damage more severe.

Researchers say the growth of construction, particularly illegal projects, has increased levels of sedimentation in rivers, which damages the coastal ecosystems below. Shannon, a real estate developer originally from Canada who says he’s lived here for 16 years, said he believes the moratorium is an overreaction to the problem and will scare off investment.

“Wherever there’s a house, you can have a driver and a three-wood (golf club) and not hit your neighbor… Down here, there’s very little high-density development going on,” Shannon said. “How could you shut down real estate, architects, engineers, builders and send the developers, and buyers of land and investors out of the country, especially with the advent of Nicaragua and Panama?” Nicaragua and Panama have made efforts in recent years to reduce barriers to foreign investment and are considered growing real estate markets.

Shannon acknowledged there is real estate speculation in the area, and that some people are developing illegally and destroying forests – projects he says should be shut down – but says an all-out moratorium is not the answer.

“It’s just going to kill the market for God-knows-how-long,” he said.

Jorge Lobo, a UCR researcher studying development in the area, applauded the moratorium, however, calling it “a positive step.”

“Hopefully they can sustain it in the face of the pressure that will come from the developers,” Lobo said in an e-mail this week. “In my travels in the Fila Costeña, I didn’t see anybody doing things ‘well.’And if they want to go to Nicaragua and Panama to destroy, then go. Here, we want another type of investor.”

Najera also dismissed Shannon’s concerns.

“Our tourism is tourism that comes to see the natural beauty of the area. If we destroy it, they will go somewhere else, like

Nicaragua,” she said.

When consulted by The Tico Times earlier this month about the possibility of suspending building permits, Cole said then that putting a hold on all construction was not economically feasible for the municipality, as it depended on fees for its funding.However, this week he said members of the Municipal Council already had been discussing the project.

The decision’s timing, he added, also has something to do with the weather.

“We are coming into the rainy season. It is not a good season to be doing this type of work,” Cole said this week. “We are also very concerned about avoiding natural disasters.

This is an area heavily affected by nature. When there are hurricanes on the Atlantic, there is enormous precipitation here, which has been measured in meters, not centimeters.

They are isolated phenomena, but if that happens, with the conditions now and the way they are moving the earth, all that dirt will go into rivers and into the ocean and have a very negative effect on nature.”


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