San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Osa’s Coastline Mismanaged

The Osa Peninsula, in Costa Rica’s pristine Southern Zone, is the last frontier in what some have called a real estate free-for all that is sweeping the Pacific coast from the northwestern province of Guanacaste south.

And according to a scathing report by the Comptroller General’s Office, the buck stops there.

The 30-page report, released last week, cites a laundry list of grievances against the Municipality of Osa and various government agencies including the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) and the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), and charges that the coastal zone in Osa has been exploited “without planning, enforcement or order.”

Specifically, it points to a lack of functioning zoning plans, increasing illegal exploitation of public lands, inefficient property tax collection and faulty, or missing, record of landowners and concessionaires along the coastline and beaches.

In a country deluged with reports of illegal development activity, such revelations might seem mundane – but the Comptroller General’s Office has mixed things up a bit.

It has demanded immediate action by the municipality and Osa Mayor Jorge Cole.

Specifically, it cites 13 actions the mayor must take within two months to halt the trends – including the demolition of illegal shore-front homes and commercial buildings. Cole insists it’s too little, too late.

“This canton has been run like a corner store for the past few years, and while we’re grateful for the support of the Comptroller’s Office, we’re not going to change that overnight,” said Cole in a static-ridden phone interview with The Tico Times Monday.

He has petitioned the Comptroller’s Office to take another look at its deadlines –or supply him with the resources necessary to comply.

Cole took office in February and has been at the forefront of a recent movement to control development in the remote OsaPeninsula – working together with the Nature Conservancy and the University of Costa Rica, among others, to put a temporary moratorium on new construction while the municipality drafts zoning plans for the canton (TT, March 16).

He points out that the Comptroller’s Office study, which began in 2000 and ended in 2006, is old news – part of a system he’s already begun to revamp.

The process of establishing a moratorium, he said, is nearing an end – he hopes to see a vote of the Osa Municipal Council within the next week – but he said the goals of the Comptroller’s report are still unrealistic.

“I am not questioning anything in the report,” Cole said. “But the demands require a serious economic investment – and time.

We can’t resolve years of deficiency and corruption in months.”

Prime Territory

The region covered by the report, Osa’s Maritime Zone, constitutes 32.4 square kilometers – of which only 16% is administered by a plan regulador, or zoning plan, a small percentage which has given way to virtual chaos, according to the report.

The Maritime Zone is a 200-meter band along most of the coastline of the country where land possession and use is restricted to concessions, or long-term leases.

Golfo Dulce, a saltwater gulf that serves as an invaluable breeding ground for marine life, according to scientists, lies smack in the middle of the zone, a magnet to land hunters and the site of recent large-scale development proposals (TT, May 4).

The report also says investigators found it “impossible to identify the number of concessions granted,” in the Osa Maritime Zone, because of disorganized record keeping within the muncipality.

Cole agreed the situation is a mess – but said his people have been working hard to clean it up.

“Since I took office, we’ve reviewed, folder by folder, every concession in the zone – almost 2,000 in all,” he said.

The report also insists on a plan for demolishing illegal structures inside the public Maritime Zone – in just two months.

“We have a total of three people working in our office right now. Each of those illegal structures requires its due process. It is just not realistic for us to do it all in two months,” Cole insisted.

This isn’t the first time the Comptroller’s Office ruled that construction along the nation’s coasts was out of control.

In 2005, the Comptroller released a report that reprimanded the municipalities of Nicoya in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and Golfito in the Southern Zone, among others, for neglecting Maritime Zone Law (TT, Sept. 23, 2005).

Just this week, the government affirmed its intentions to build an international airport in Palmar Sur (see separate story), a move some in Osa feel flies in the face of the Comptroller General’s findings.

“It is clear from the report that we are just not ready for the kind of effects an airport could have on our region,” said Denise Echeverría, director of the Vida Marina Foundation on the Osa. “We’ve already seen what happens when you add an airport to a region that is unprepared. Look at Guanacaste.”

Guanacaste municipalities were caught with their pants around their ankles earlier this year when the Federated Association of Engineers and Architects revealed that almost one in four developments in the region lacked permits (TT, March 16).

The Comptroller’s report acknowledges that Osa is not the only place such beachfront development problems have been observed.

“This is not an isolated situation. It is repeated in other coastal municipalities throughout the country,” it reads in its closing paragraphs, finishing with the ominous conclusion that the institutions involved are incapable of guaranteeing compliance with any of the regulations that “govern the Maritime Zone.”

The Tico Times contacted these institutions, but the Tourism Institute was not aware of the report and declined to comment, and the Environment Ministry did not return calls by press time.

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