San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Judges Blowing Whistle on Building Permits

Environmental officials say employees at TalamancaMunicipality, and some from their own ranks may have rubber-stamped permits that allowed homes and hotels that could damage prized forests and wetlands along the Caribbean coast.

An April 7-11 sweep of construction sites in the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge and nearby towns led to a clampdown on several building projects of private homes and lodges, including the reputedly ecofriendly Hotel Almendros y Corales.

The inspections also revealed that some landowners obtained building permits for projects that encroach on the 50-meter nobuilding zone along the shore, according to the Environmental Administrative Tribunal, the judicial arm of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE).

The tribunal said it will probe high-level employees of the Limón branch of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), also a part of MINAE, the release said.

SINAC directors were not available for comment, nor were members of the Talamanca council, whom the environment judges suspect might also be turning a blind eye to harmful construction in the region.

Tribunal inspectors completed operations on nearly 30 projects, and 17 more remain under investigation, the tribunal’s chief justice, José Lino Chaves, told The Tico Times.

“There are lots more than we expected,” Chaves said of allegedly illegal buildings, tree cutting and burning.

Hotel Almendros y Corales – whose good green practices earned it four of five leaves in Costa Rica’s ecological certification – got caught cutting down trees in the wildlife refuge without permission, according to the tribunal.

“They had building permits from the municipality, however they did not have permission to cut down trees,” said Chaves.

The Almendros proprietors actually reported the felling to the authorities about two years ago, according to co-owner Marco Odio.

Odio said the damage occurred when a routine tree trimming got out of hand.

“We hired someone we’d never used before to trim the trees while we were away, and we got back to find he had cut them down.We notified MINAE,” Odio said.

With legal action pending against the hotel, the owners went on to begin building what they hope will be their private home on a quarter-hectare property near the hotel.

Tribunal inspectors last week spotted the already reported tree clearing, said Odio, and halted construction. Now Almendros y Corales is appealing the decision.

Another nearby hotel, Villas del Caribe, has appealed a closure of its expansion, too. The tribunal ruled that the Villas project to build new rooms, a conference space and a swimming pool was being carried out without a proper permit from the environmental regulatory agency known as SETENA.

Inspectors also claimed the hotel was expanding into state-owned restricted territory and exploiting materials such as coral.

Villas del Caribe owner Julio García denies most of the claims but acknowledges that he might have lacked the proper SETENA permit.

The tribunal, García said, is punishing the hotel for setting up “volleyball courts.”

“We put up two poles and a net on the beach, and they’re calling that a ‘court.’ There are volleyball nets up and down the beach.

It’s ridiculous,” he said.

“The coral we used to line our paths is from a quarry 500 kilometers inland. They’re implying that we pulled it from the ocean. I’d never do that.”

García will eventually have a chance to make his case. “The environmental damages need to be proven in court,” Chaves said, adding that the tribunal is examining García’s case.

The law is based on induvio pro natura, which means, “In case of doubt, nature takes precedence,” Chaves explained.

“If there’s doubt as to whether (the construction) is located within the (restricted) wildlife refuge or wetlands, for example, we close the site.”

He said the sweeps will continue throughout the country.


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