San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Plan Regulador 101: Zoning Basics

Anyone living or doing business in Costa Rica – particularly in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, where skyrocketing construction has become a way of life – will eventually come across the term “plan regulador,” or zoning plan. The term is certainly on the lips of residents of Tamarindo, the northwestern beach district whose community association and municipal leaders are in the process of reviewing a 130-page draft of a plan for the district, including analysis of the area’s infrastructure, population and current land use, as well as goals for Tamarindo’s sustainable development.

Those of us without an urban planning background might find ourselves wondering: exactly what is a zoning plan, why is it so important, and which Guanacaste cantons have one? The answer to the last question: only one.

Cañas, in eastern Guanacaste, is the only canton in the province that has a zoning plan approved for its entire territory, according to Luis Fernando Maykall of the Institute for Municipal Development (IFAM). Though many cantons have zoning plans completed for their capitals or other areas where development is occurring particularly fast, such as beach towns, none but Cañas has regulated growth across the board.

“In the case of Guanacaste, the municipalities, of course, have zoning plans, but not all with complete coverage,” Maykall told The Tico Times, explaining that Liberia, Tilarán, Nicoya and Santa Cruz – the central towns of their eponymous cantons – have zoning plans in place. All of the province’s cantons are working toward more comprehensive plans, he said.

Such plans are essential for helping municipalities control growth,Maykall said.

“In my criteria, a municipality without a zoning plan doesn’t have the tools for adequate operation,” he said. “Zoning plans are an essential tool for the use of physical space … It has to be compatible with the environment and sustainable over time.”

They’re even more important in today’s Costa Rica, especially its so-called “Gold Coast,” according to Maykall.

“It’s very relevant given the planning situation the country is confronting, especially in areas with a strong impact such as Guanacaste, which has such a high level of foreign investment at the beaches,” he said.

Without regulation, this development can occur helter-skelter and often exceeds what the soil can handle – a particularly serious problem now that more and more developers go to Guanacaste to develop, sell and leave, rather than extend roots into a community they have an interest in sustaining, says Tamarindo Improvement Association head Jorge Calvo (see separate story).

Beaches are protected by the 1977 Maritime Zone Law, which prevents any construction within 50 meters of the halfway point between the high- and low-tide marks, and requires concessions for construction on the next 150 meters. However, other land gets less attention.

“Sometimes (human use) starts to destroy significant sources of natural resources, and sometimes (hotels) are built in areas of high risk,”Maykall said.

So how is a zoning plan created? The municipality – which, in some cases, works in coordination with community groups such as the Tamarindo Improvement Association and the National Institute for Housing and Urban Development (INVU), which must approve all zoning plans – hires a company, usually specializing in engineering or planning, to create a draft plan, Maykall explained. That company must “analyze the limits and potential of the territory,” which, of course, varies widely depending on the canton. Eighty percent of the canton of Talamanca, on the southern Caribbean coast, for example, is already under government regulation as an indigenous or nature reserve, Maykall said, so the municipality must regulate only the remaining 20%. Other cantons have a much larger swath of land to monitor.

In this stage, as the Tamarindo draft demonstrates, everything from the area’s population and climate to its agriculture and industrial and tourism-related strengths are recorded. Based on these factors, the draft establishes which land can be used for residential, industrial, institutional and commercial purposes and which land is protected, as well as defining factors such as lot size or permissible building height.

According to Cañas Mayor Kattia María Solórzano, the process of creating a 500-page zoning plan for her 682-square-kilometer canton took approximately seven years. Like many cash-strapped municipalities, Cañas relied on funds from a private foundation to kick off the process, hiring an engineering company that designed the draft of the plan and brought in an economist, environmentalist, sociologist and other professionals.

This team held meetings with community associations and other local groups for input. The National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) must also approve an environmental impact study for the area as part of this process.

Once the draft was completed, the municipality posted it in its office for months and made announcements throughout the community to encourage people to review it and make suggestions. The Municipal Council also formed a special commission of representatives from a host of government agencies represented in the region, from the National Emergency Commission to the Public Education Ministry, to review the plan.

These plans are about much more than defining residential versus business or where parks must be located, Maykall said. Planes reguladores also consider everything from roadways to public services.

For example, the Tamarindo draft outlines the organization of bus routes and new sewer facilities. It doesn’t lack ambition, aiming to “convert the district of Tamarindo into a modern district capable of generating enough resources to ensure the well-being of the population … (and) making the district a functional, friendly urban setting that’s ours, with its own identity.”

Once community consultations are complete, the Municipal Council, then INVU, must approve the plan, which is then published in the official government daily La Gaceta to become legally binding (a hefty undertaking in and of itself, since the plans generally fill hundreds of pages).

That’s the end of the road, but also the beginning, as the many squabbles over Maritime Zone Law enforcement in recent years demonstrate. Municipalities must not only create a zoning plan, but also find a way to enforce it, Maykall said.

What’s more, constant vigilance is required to ensure the finished plan remains relevant, according to Solórzano.

“It’s not static. It’s not made of stone,” she said, explaining that if a new industry not considered in the plan sets up shop in the canton, for example, she’ll have to reevaluate to make sure the plan doesn’t become obsolete.

With many municipalities lacking the funds to create and implement a zoning plan – local governments receive approximately 2% of total government spending, one of the lowest proportions in Latin America (TT, Oct. 20, 2006) – central organizations and international agencies have stepped in in many cases. Cañas relied on the nonprofit Avina Foundation for an initial donation that allowed it to hire the company that created its draft plan. Olman Rojas of the Metropolitan Area Regional and Urban Program said his organization is coordinating with the Inter-American Development Bank to finance the development of plans in eight Guanacaste cantons – Abangares, Bagaces, Carrillo, La Cruz, Nandayure, Nicoya, Santa Cruz and Tilarán – and the review of some existing zoning plans, as well as a “strategic plan for territorial development in the whole province.”

Asked what advice she’d offer other Guanacaste cantons where the process of creating a plan is under way, Solórzano, now in her second term as Cañas’mayor, said residents of those areas should forge ahead.

“They should see it as a tool, a necessity,” she said, adding that without a zoning plan, a mayor’s hands are tied when it comes to preventing a canton’s land from being stretched too thin. “To limit deforestation, to limit where people can build … for so many things, it’s really useful.”


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