San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Court: No Building Permits for Playa Grande

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) has effectively ruled against any construction on property within the disputed boundaries of the Las Baulas National Marine Park, and extended restrictions another 500 meters from the park’s edge.

Ruling Dec 16, the court annulled all environmental viability permits issued for properties inside the park, located adjacent to Playa Grande, on the northern Pacific coast, and instructed the government not to award any more environmental viability permits – a mandatory requisite for any type of construction permit – for that area.

It also ordered the Environment Ministry’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA), the office in charge of issuing environmental viability permits, to suspend all existing permits – and the processing of any environmental viability applications – for property within 500 meters of the park’s boundaries, effectively creating a protected buffer zone for Las Baulas.

“They’ve gone absolutely crazy,” said Ana Facio, who owns property inside the Las Baulas park. “That buffer zone hasn’t been created by law or anything. The Sala IV is going to have to give some explanation.”

The Sala IV ruling is a setback for Playa Grande landowners, who have been fighting a government interpretation of the law that created the park to include a wide swath of inland property. The interpretation has meant the government must expropriate the privately owned land, which, at the land values owners are claiming (some as high as $1,200 per square meter), could cost the government as much as $800 million.

Las Baulas was created in 1991 to protect the critically endangered leatherback turtles, called baulas in Spanish, which nest on the park’s beach. Leatherback populations have plummeted 98 percent in the last 20 years.

Facio and other land owners insist the park was meant only to include the beach, and insist they can develop the area responsibly without bothering the nesting turtles.

The real threats, they say, come from shrimp trawlers and other fishing boats at sea or from neighboring Tamarindo, a booming tourist town whose lights are visible from Las Baulas beach.

Researchers say too much light can discourage leatherbacks from nesting, or confuse hatchlings as they emerge from their nests.

“I see this as very positive,” said Ronald Vargas the general director of National System of Protected Areas (SINAC), an office of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET).

“This is going to lower the proposed prices of the property owners,” he added. Facio, however, said the ruling and what she hoped would end up being only a temporary restriction on environmental building permits, should have no affect on property values.

Conservation groups such as the Leatherback Trust and the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), which have fought in favor of the park’s current boundaries, are taking the ruling as a victory.

“We are very happy with this ruling,” said Randall Arazu, president of PRETOMA. “It only confirms our position.”

Sala IV ordered the municipalities of Santa Cruz, Nandayure, Hojancha, Nicoya and Carrillo to work with several central government agencies to study what effects construction and tourism are having on the 500-meter buffer zone surrounding the Las Baulas park ecosystem and the on the leatherback turtle.

The agencies have until June to submit their report.


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