San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Judge Won’t Hear Squatter Case

A week after a story in Forbes magazine about squatters in Costa Rica ruffled local real estate feathers, a judge has refused to decide a case brought by U.S. landholders whose houses in Puerto Jiménez, a town on the Osa Penninsula on the southern Pacific, are occupied by squatters.

The conflict started in 2005, when Carolyn Morris Lott decided to sell her two properties on both sides of the TigreRiver to William Tirrell, who planned to build a hotel. The same day Tirrell made a deposit of $25,000, neighbors moved in and chased him off the property with machetes, according to Tirrell.

“We’ve gone in front of judge after judge,” he said.

The most recent judge, Patricia Hidalgo of the Golfito Criminal Court, ruled she does not have jurisdiction. Tirrell is appealing that ruling.

Tirrell said he had a financial backer for his hotel who pulled out due to these delays, taking his offer of $500,000 with him.

The story in Forbes magazine last week cited a different squatting case involving H. Craig Carter and a small group of investors from Utah. The story warned readers to “think hard” before buying a piece of land in Costa Rica, particularly if they plan to be an absentee landlord.

“The agrarian law says that squatters can’t be booted off unoccupied land without a court order. Moreover, if they stick around for a year, they get the right to stay indefinitely,” the magazine warned.

The article sparked some fears among real estate agents here who say it exaggerates a problem that happens to few landowners, and may scare away investors.

“I think it is important for people to know that this issue does not apply to very many properties here, and information about it should be presented in a balanced way,” Russ Martin, general manager of American-European Real Estate Group, told The Tico Times.

“Costa Rica’s so-called ‘squatter law’ was devised to keep huge land owners … from holding vast territories that are not used for productive purposes,” he said. “This law kept strife between classes from breaking into civil unrest and prevented the rise of radical movements. In addition, safeguards exist to counteract abuse of the law.”

However, squatting is nothing new in Costa Rica, and some cases has led to violence. Ten years ago, 79-year-old U.S. ranch owner Max Dalton and a Costa Rican farmer were shot dead in a confrontation over a squatting case in the south Pacific beach town of Pavones. Another outbreak of violence a month later followed efforts to clear a squatter settlement from the beachside property of U.S. landholder James Popschella (TT, Jan. 9, 1998). Last year, at least two squatting cases led to violence (TT, Oct. 19, 2007).

Martin said that land buyers should talk to neighbors before purchasing a piece of land, and make sure the property is fenced in. Treating the caretaker and neighbors fairly also helps prevent problems.

Tirrell, however, doesn’t see how he can get his property back now.

“I’m planning on camping out in front of the court (before the hearing of the appeal),” he said.


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