San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Playa Grande Squabble Could Go International

Eager to finish a decades-long tug of war with the Costa Rican government, angry landowners with property inside Las Baulas National Park plan to take their case to international arbitration in Washington, D.C.

German citizens Reinhard and Marion Unglaube say the government 15 years ago invited them to invest at Playa Grande, a broad expanse of light-sand beach and foamy surf just north of Tamarindo, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

The government since declared the land a national park, halting the completion of Unglaubes’ development and calling for expropriations of nearby land inside its borders.

“This legal insecurity has left us with no choice but to go to international arbitration,” he said.

The couple’s 33.5-hectare property is already largely developed,with 60 houses, four hotels and a supermarket, but the remaining 3.5 hectares have been paralyzed in the ensuing debate over the park’s private inholdings.

Unglaube is seeking compensation for lost time and money. All told, the property, fully developed, would likely be worth millions of dollars at market value, according to local real estate agencies.

Unglaube said his team of French lawyers presented the case to the InternationalCenter for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a branch of the World Bank that settles investment disputes between countries and private citizens.

The World Bank facilitates such arbitration – and the decision is binding, according to its regulations, but only if both parties agree to enter into arbitration in the first place.

Should one decline, all bets are off. “We’ve yet to be notified,” said Environment and Energy Ministry spokesman Ricardo Arias.

Neither the National Registry nor the Justice Ministry had heard of the case, either. Unglaube said he expects the case to cost the government millions of dollars and last three years or more.

According to a press release distributed by Unglaube’s press agency, I-Com de Costa Rica, the call to arbitration will cast Costa Rica in a negative light among investors worldwide.

“Citizens of other countries will hesitate before investing in a nation that doesn’t respect the rights of investors,” said Unglaube.

In the release, Unglaube refers to himself as an honorary member of the International Conservation Union (IUCN) and an “activist” with GreenPeace, another international environmental group.

A consortium of local and international environmental groups, meanwhile, called the landowners, who have held press conferences in San José hotels and given some reporters all-expense paid visits to the beach, greedy.

Biologists say Playa Grande, where the Unglaube property is located, is the last remaining, most important nesting beach for the critically threatened Pacific leatherback sea turtle, whose populations have plummeted 98% in the past 20 years.

Any development, they say, could sacrifice their critical nesting habitat and put the species over the edge. The park’s original law of creation calls for 125 meters of protection inland from the high water mark – swallowing up the region’s most valuable real estate.

Facing potential expropriation, they joined together in a community action group last year called the Association for the Protection of the Leatherback Turtle and Development of Tamarindo Bay.

Despite a binding 2005 decision by the Attorney General’s Office affirming the park’s boundaries, landowners inside the boundaries question its validity, casting doubt over the law’s wording and legislators’ intentions.

The resulting confusion and stalemate led them to propose their own zoning plan, approved by the municipality, which they claim is “one of the most rigorous in the world.”

The Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) under President Arias’ administration disagreed, prompting the a call for expropriation, the campaign by landowners and Unglaube’s recent arbitration.

Randall Arauz, leader of long-standing national conservation group Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), says it shouldn’t matter anyway because the Arias administration has settled the legal dispute and declared the land a park.

“If Costa Rica holds to its position, it will show the world that this country is committed to conservation and that we support and enforce our environmental laws,” he said.


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