San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bill to Modify Marina Controls Under Fire

The Legislative Assembly is considering a bill that would increase environmental controls on marina development and ease the application process.

However, some critics are saying the environmental protections don’t go far enough.

“You can’t go on approving laws like the intended Law of Marinas and Tourist Docks, with the only goal of facilitating foreign investment on the coastal area,” wrote Guillermo Quirós, an outspoken oceanographer and environmentalist, in an essay posted to his blog, Oceanos.

Quirós, who believes the bill would only ease development and put fragile coastal ecosystems at risk, called for a “paused and serious analysis … in these chaotic times of coastal development.”

The office that must review and approve all marina plans, the Inter-Institutional Commission on Marinas and Tourist Docks (CIMAT), has 12 marina proposals for the Pacific coast. Three other marinas are currently under construction.

Costa Rica has just one operational marina, Los Sueños Marina on the HerraduraBay on the central Pacific coast.

The bill opposed by Quirós would reform Costa Rica’s Law of Marinas and Tourist Docks, which was passed by the Legislative Assembly in 1998.

“This reform improves and, I believe, more responsibly regulates the development of marinas,” said Oscar Villalobos, the director of CIMAT. “Perhaps it is not ideal, but if we look at what exists, this proposed reform is better.”

Villalobos insisted that the reforms would only increase environmental protections.

Currently, private companies can request a permit to build a marina anywhere on the coast except for in national parks, biological reserves and areas declared mangrove forests, which are protected.

The reform would extend the prohibited areas to include all “national patrimony,” Villalobos said. That is a much broader category that includes any forests and all areas designated by the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) as protected areas, not just national parks and biological reserves.

Under the reformed law, developers would also be prohibited from building marinas in areas where there are coral reefs.

A recent proposal to build a marina off the shores of Puerto Viejo, a popular Caribbean tourist town, met with fierce community opposition that in part was fueled by concerns that the marina was to be built over a coral reef (TT, Aug 8).

The conflict in Puerto Viejo appears to have inspired another modification to the existing law.

While CIMAT approves marina plans, developers must apply to the local municipality for their concession to use the beach and ocean area, and for their construction permits.

“Before awarding the concession for a marina, the municipality must hold a public hearing. This will allow the community to have its concerns heard,” Villalobos said. “In Puerto Viejo, there was a lot of effort by the community (to be heard). The law would open that space in an obligatory way.”

The reform would also make some changes to the processing of applications.

For example, it increases coordination between CIMAT and the Environment Ministry’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA), the office responsible for approving environmental impact studies.

It would also allow for developers to receive a “conditional concession” from the municipality before it has finished with its environmental permitting process, Villalobos explained.

That concession, based on a preliminary environmental OK from SETENA,

makes it easier for developers to get financing for their projects and jump through other bureaucratic hoops. Construction cannot begin, however, until the full process is completed.

Currently, marina projects must have their environmental impact report approved and their SETENA process finished before applying for their concessions.

Quirós, however, said the bill would cause a “drastic decrease” in the environmental requirements for the SETENA permits. The bill “takes advantage, on one hand, of our legislators’ great confusion and ignorance and, on the other hand, the lack of understanding of the appropriate management of these fragile ecosystems,” he said.

“If we are only looking at it from the environmental point of view, the most favorable thing for the country is that there are no more marinas,” Villalobos said. “But it needs to be understood that in the Legislative Assembly, they try to find a balance between investment, social needs and the environmental aspect.”

Villalobos added that CIMAT was in the process of wrapping up a study of the Pacific coast to determine all the environmentally fragile areas, which would be used in determining where marinas are and aren’t viable.

Besides the Los Sueños Marina, the nation’s only other operating Marina, off the northern Pacific beach of Playa Flamingo, was closed in 2004 for environmental violations. After years of conflict and ureaucratic confusion, the concession to build a new marina at Flamingo was awarded this year to bidder Desarrollos de Marinas Matapalo Demm S.A. That decision, however, has been appealed by a losing bidder.

Two other marinas are currently under construction on the Pacific coast. The furthest along is the Papagayo marina, north of Playas del Coco, on the southern side of the PapagayoPeninsula.

This will be part of the state-administrated Polo Turístico Golfo Papagayo, a concession- only area home to some of the country’s most luxurious resorts. That marina is expected to be ready by the end of this year or early next year.

The second marina, to be located in Quepos, is the Marina Pez Vela. Developers have planned on opening next year.

Of the 12 other marina applications in  Villalobos’ office, half are in the very initial stages, while the other half have presented draft plans.


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