2nd Coastal Zoning Decree Late & Under Fire

August 29, 2008

Emergency building regulations the government recently enacted to get a handle on out-of-control coastal development do not go far enough and put the environment at risk, say environment and sustainable development experts.

In April, President Oscar Arias signed into law a decree laying down basic zoning rules for the northwestern coastal region known as Chorotega, which includes the province of Guanacaste as well as the western edge of the NicoyaPeninsula, part of the province of Puntarenas.

With few exceptions, much of the area lacks zoning plans, which are supposed to be drafted by local municipalities.

The Arias administration is now preparing a second, similar decree for the rest of the Pacific coast, including the booming Central Pacific and environmentally fragile southern Pacific regions. Tourism Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides told The Tico Times this week the decree is expected to be ready in September.

A group of environmental experts and advisers, however, has released a scathing report saying the Chorotega decree, rather than protect the environment, puts it at risk. The report found that the decree lays down insufficient urban growth restrictions, and no environmental regulations.

The report also notes that an Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) decree signed during former president Abel Pacheco’s administration (2002-2006) requires “all land-use planning” to include “environmental variables.”

“The environmental parameters are not even considered,” said Denise Echeverría, an environmental adviser who serves as the group’s spokeswoman.

The group, an informal association of colleagues working in similar fields, has no political aims, she added.

“We are not activists,” she said. “We are concerned.”

The decrees, which are to stand for four years unless renewed by the next administration, are meant to be emergency measures to set temporary rules while local governments go about the tedious and plodding work of drafting their own long-overdue zoning plans.

“The situation before the decree was you could practically build, in terms of height, up to infinity, and the same in terms of density,” said Benavides. “I think (the decree) is suitable, because it is an action taken very responsibly by the government to set limitations on the development of infrastructure, particularly real estate.”

The Chorotega decree set regulations based on three zones: the Maritime Zone, within the first 200 meters inland from the mid-tide point; the Intermediate Zone, within the next 800 meters; and the Internal Zone, within the next three kilometers.

In each of these zones, the decree set height limits, density limits, minimum lot sizes, maximum construction coverage, minimum building frontage and minimum front and rear setbacks. Those regulations within each area also are specified for construction designated as residential, commercial or tourism.

Height limits range from 16 meters to 36 meters (four to nine stories), while density ranges between 20 and 30 homes per hectare, or 100 people per hectare per floor for residential and 80 to 160 hotel rooms per floor per hectare.

Opponents view the restrictions as too liberal.

“Reviewing it, we found that the decree allows the country to get to density levels as high as Beijing, in coastal areas,” said Echeverría.

At maximum height and density limits, in the Internal Zone, the decree allows for up to 90,000 people per square kilometer. In Beijing, Echeverría said, population density is around 32,000 people per square kilometer.

“Normally, you would say, ‘This won’t happen,’” she said. “But it has happened in other places, so why not here?”

Echeverría noted that densities as high as those allowed for in the decree would “collapse” basic services like garbage collection and sewage disposal. Meanwhile, she said, the decree does not include studies of environmentally sensitive regions, nor does it adjust regulations according to available water supplies or land features.

While many of the environmental considerations are supposed to be vetted during the permit process, and the decree defers to existing environmental legislation, a recent series of raids by the MINAET’s Environmental Tribunal has accused dozens of projects, both permitted and underway, that violated environmental laws.

“The decree should establish what the environmental rules are. It is not enough to complete the environmental requirements of SETENA (the MINAET office responsible for approving a project’s environmental viability), the National Water and Sewer Institute and the municipalities, like checking off a list. Those are not real environmental standards,” she said. These are things that must

be taken into consideration from the design stage.”

Benavides called recent criticisms of the decree “bad faith” and deceptive. “Information is being manipulated to make it seem like the disorder comes from the decree and not before it,” he said. “These are opinions of people who cannot be satisfied in any way.”

The tourism minister noted that without the decree, no rules are in effect for these areas.

Echeverría disagreed, saying that other environmental and zoning regulations do apply, and by announcing the decrees, it promotes more development.

“Just because there are no regulations does not justify proposing something like this.”

lbaxter@ticotimes.net

Preserving Coastal Views

Under the Chorotega decree, residential, tourism and commercial construction will be restricted in three zones that run inland from the ocean’s edge.

The MariTiMe Zone

(first 200 meters inland from the mid-tide point)

residential

Maximum building height: 16 meters Density: 30 homes per hectare; 100 people per floor per hectare

Minimum lot size: 300 square meters

Tourism

Max. bldg height: 16 meters

Density: 80 rooms per hectare

Min. lot size: 500 square meters

Commercial

Max. bldg height: 16 meters

Min. lot size: 300 square meters

inTerMediaTe Zone

(the next 800 meters from the Maritime Zone)

residential

Max. bldg. height: 24 meters

Density: 20 homes per hectare per floor; 100 people per hectare per floor

Min. lot size: 300 square meters

Tourism

Max. bldg. height: 24 meters

Density: 120 rooms per hectare

Min. lot size: 500 square meters

Commercial

Max. bldg. height: 20 meters

Min. lot size: 300 square meters

The inTernal Zone

(the next three kilometers)

residential

Max. bldg. height: 36 meters

Density: 25 homes per hectare per floor; 100 people

per hectare per floor

Min. lot size: 300 square meters

Tourism

Max. bldg. height: 36 meters

Density: 160 rooms per hectare

Min. lot size: 500 square meters

Commercial

Max. bldg. height: 20 meters

Min. lot size: 300 square meters

 

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