San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guanacaste to Receive New Zoning Plans

As part of its aggressive plan to overhaul the country’s land registry system (TT, July 27), Costa Rica’s central government is sponsoring the development of individual zoning plans for 11 of the 12 Guanacaste municipalities, as well as an umbrella zoning plan for the entire northwestern province.

The new zoning plans will lay out guidelines for building height, density, land use, public health concerns, environmental impact and project “viability” regarding public spaces and works, said Olman Rojas, the project’s coordinator.

The project clocks in at a cost of nearly $1 million, money that will come from the $92.1 million budgeted for the National Cadastre and Registry Regularization project.

Rojas said several companies are bidding for the public contract to draft the zoning plans, and though one has been selected, the winner will not be publicly announced for a week and a half. The companies awaiting the decision are Spanish-owned Inypsa, Daniel Arbour and Associates of Canada, and a joint bid between another Spanish company, Ipypsa, and Costa Rican Deppap.

Work on the zoning plans is slated to begin in December and take 15 months to complete.

The plans will be drawn up with help from municipal zoning commissions, whose members the project is now training. Once completed, implementation and upkeep of the zoning plans will be in the hands of those commissions.

With condos, hotels and tourist attractions popping up like mushrooms all over Guanacaste during the past decade, zoning plans (or planes reguladores, as they’re known in Spanish) are long overdue in many areas, say developers.

Only one of the municipalities in Guanacaste – Cañas – has a zoning plan that covers every canton. In most other places in the province, zoning plans simply don’t exist, or are outdated or patchy.

“It seems important to me because it should define the rules of the game for all the developers,” said Francisco Alvarado, president of Grupo Mapache, a property development company with eight years’ experience in the area and more than a thousand units constructed.

Alvarado said the confusion from lack of zoning plans in Guanacaste has caused everything from slow-downs in development to outright abuse.

Jaime Brenes, a consultant working to train the municipal zoning commissions, agreed, saying abuses span far and wide.

One common abuse is the building of oceanview houses on land zoned for agricultural production. Individually they don’t amount to much, but together they make up what should be zoned as an urban development with a plan for schools and wastewater treatment.

Instead, the wastewater often gets dumped down the mountain, “straight to the beach,” Brenes said. “People are swimming in wastewater.”

Brenes said public services such as the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) also regularly commit abuses by, for example, erecting light poles and other infrastructure without bothering to get permits.

Some municipalities have tried to make their own zoning plans. Santa Cruz, for example, has pulled together a draft of a zoning plan for the heavily developed beach community of Tamarindo (TT, March 30).

But that plan doesn’t cover the whole municipality. Santa Cruz Mayor Jorge Chavarría said he welcomes the support that the new project will give, and Rojas said the Tamarindo draft will be incorporated into the new plan.

Most municipalities simply can’t afford the expense of coming up with their own zoning plans. Cañas – an exception – was able to draft its zoning plan using a grant from the Avina Foundation, a Swiss nonprofit that focuses on development in Latin America (TT, March 30).

But while initial costs of drafting the zoning plan will be shouldered by the central government, Rojas said the administration of the zoning plan will be up to municipalities.

The project “gives a tool to the municipalities to control their territory,” he added. Municipalities must commit to forming a zoning commission that will help draft and administer the plan, as well as to spending at least 1% of their annual budgets maintaining the plan once it is established.

The project is now in the process of training four people per municipality to take over that task.

In addition to creating municipal zoning plans, the project will also make a provincial plan for all of Guanacaste. That will include completion of a comprehensive environmental-impact study for development in the whole province.

The 15 months allotted for the completion of the whole project is the time it will take to draw up the draft. Later, it must be submitted by the municipalities for community comment and afterward approved by the municipal councils.

All zoning plans also must get the green light from the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) and the National Institute for Housing and Urban Development (INVU).

The regional plan must get approval from Guanacaste’s Municipal League and the Planning Ministry.

Pacific Maritime Zone To Get Plan as Well

Guanacaste isn’t the only part of the country to get zoning plans as part of the National Cadastre and Registry Regularization project. The project also has provisions for zoning plans for 16 sections of the Maritime Zone farther south on the Pacific coast.

“What we’re selecting are those areas where there are possibilities of developing in the (Maritime) Zone,” said Olman Rojas, the coordinator of the zoning plan part of the project.

The Maritime Zone is the 200-meter strip of land along Costa Rica’s coasts. One hundred and fifty meters of that land is public property that can be developed only through concessions, while the 50 meters closest to the coast is untouchable under any circumstance. Some areas, such as certain coastal cities, are exempt.

Plans for the Maritime Zone will cover nearly 460 kilometers of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, including coast in Guanacaste, the central Pacific and the southern Pacific.

Like the other zoning plans to be drafted through the project, the plans for the Maritime Zone will set standards for development height, density and infrastructure, among other things.

Osa Mayor Jorge Cole, in conjuntion with the Nature Conservancy and the University of Costa Rica, among others, have suggested a building moratorium in the region to allow time for the drafting of such plans and regulations. To date, the plan is still pending.

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