San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Building Experts: Preliminary Consults Are Key

To build a tropical retreat from the northern winter months is the goal of many foreigners who put down stakes in Costa Rica. And while prospective builders here might not have to take into account things such as avalanches when planning their second (or permanent) homes, they should be aware of certain considerations when building here.

Building to withstand earthquakes is at the forefront of most people’s minds in the wake of the Jan. 8 quake northwest of the capital, says Olman Vargas, director of the Association of Engineers and Architects (CFIA).

Costa Rica is situated over highly seismic territory, a mix of local and major fault lines, and about 60 earthquakes were felt by people in 2008, says engineer Rodrigo Guzmán, a manager with the firm Constructora Guzmán.

Seismologists usually classify zones as having low, moderate or high seismicity. All Costa Rican territory, Vargas says, is either moderate or high. The Caribbean, Central Valley and northwestern Guanacaste province sit above local, shallower fault lines that qualify as moderately seismic regions, while the NicoyaPeninsula and central to southern Pacific coast are considered highly seismic, as they sit just off the Middle Atlantic Trench, a major fault line.

The labels might be foreboding, but the risks are also well known, and smart design and planning have made buildings throughout the country capable of withstanding the occasional slight and strong shaking. Many taller buildings, including the 16-story Aurola Holiday Inn and the nine-story Centro Colón office building in San José, for example, suffered no structural damage in the Jan. 8 earthquake, thanks to some innovative architecture.

“Not even one window broke,” said Centro Colón’s building manager, Ignacio Hernández.

That building, home to the British Embassy and the Inter-American Development Bank offices, among others, is made up of three connected but structurally independent wings, and sits, as does the Holiday Inn, on a series of rollers, all of which gave the building a greater ability to absorb the ground shifts during last month’s magnitude 6.2 temblor, centered some 30 kilometers away.

Both Vargas and Guzmán say it doesn’t matter what building materials are used, so long as the construction is well done. Flat, rocky terrains are ideal and most stable for construction, say the engineers, although it is entirely possible to build on hillsides and other areas, so long as the proper consultations and ground studies are in place.

If there are rivers or streams on the property, home builders should take into account the possibility of flooding if these jump their banks in an earthquake. While hillsides are more susceptible to landslides, planting trees with sturdy root systems and retaining walls are among the techniques used to reinforce a slope.

Maritime Zone Law

For many, the point of building in Costa Rica is to live by the beach, in which case an acquaintance with the Maritime Zone Law is necessary.

The Maritime Zone, which starts at the mean high tide line, known as the pleamar ordinaria, consists of two sections. The first 50 meters is the public zone, where construction and land ownership is prohibited.

The next 150 meters is the restricted zone, where land can be built on only with a concession from the government.

The local municipality will grant one concession per Tico and foreigner with more than five years of residency in Costa Rica, allowing them to live in the restricted zone.

The concession will last from five to 20 years, depending on the agreement reached with the local authority, and is almost always easy to renew as long as the concessionaire has abided by the terms of the contract.

Foreigners with fewer than five years residency cannot own the majority stake in a concession, but there are usually three options: A Costa Rican can hold the majority share; a lawyer or law firm may hold it; or a law firm can create a trust company to hold the majority stake in the name of the client. Concessions already granted can also be traded or bought, so long as the proper authorities are notified. In general, most foreigners do not run into difficulty owning beachfront land, but the process does require good faith and a good lawyer (TT, Feb. 15, 2008).

A handful of coastal towns, including Jacó and Puntarenas on the Pacific and Limón and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean, are excluded from the law, as their concessions were granted before it was passed in 1977.

While the law has been on the books for a while, enforcement has been historically lax, at best. However, government agencies in Guanacaste recently began to seize properties built within the Maritime Zone (TT, Aug. 29, 2008). A new measure further prohibits buildings over two stories within the restricted zone, and no buildings over four stories tall for another three kilometers inland. The Legislative Assembly is reviewing measures that would enforce these restrictions throughout the rest of the Pacific coast and on the Caribbean.

Parks Stringently Protected

While enforcement of other regulations might be sporadic, Ticos keep a fierce vigil when it comes to environmental protection.

“If people know someone’s building on park land … it would be serious,” Vargas says. “They’d do something about that.”

It is illegal to build inside of Costa Rica’s national parks, biological reserves and wetlands.

In Las Baulas National Park on the northern Pacific coast, construction is further prohibited within a 500-meter buffer zone around the park’s periphery, per a recent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ruling (TT, Jan. 16).

If a property is forested, the area can be cleared only if the State Forestry Administration has approved it and, even then, only if the land is to be used for residences and offices geared toward ecotourism. Building around water sources such as river springs and banks, streams and reservoirs is prohibited, Guzmán says.

Navigating Trámite

Now for the fun part: paperwork and the inexorable bureaucratic limbo known as trámite, essentially, the application process.

This, Vargas says, is where it is most helpful to work with a local architect or engineer who can help navigate the myriad government agencies that will need to sign off on the project, or at least say whether or not the building plans will be viable.

For starters, a CFIA-member architect or engineer must sign off on the plans before the local municipality can award a building contract, although that person does not necessarily have to be the project leader.

Guzmán’s firm, for example, conducts initial ground studies, assessments and consults with the municipality and other government offices. All projects need approval from the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET), and most will need to consult with different national offices on water, road and other planned projects in the area. Vargas recommends the government Web site for more complete information.

The overseeing architect or engineer is required to check in on the property regularly during the construction period, Vargas says, a move that prevents squatters from staking any legal claim to the property. If squatters live on a piece of land that is continuously unoccupied, even if it is clearly deeded to someone else, for more than a year, they cannot be evicted (TT, Nov. 7, 2008). If hiring a foreign-based architect or engineer, be prepared to fly them in for regular inspections, or additionally contract someone locally who can make regular visits.

The process may seem arduous, and the regulations tempting to skirt, but remember: The Eternal City wasn’t built in a day, and a house with any longevity in paradise won’t be either.

Gov’t Offices to Contact

Consult the local or regional office, if possible, of the following institutions:

• Association of Engineers and Architects (CFIA)

• Local municipality

• Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET)

• Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA)

• Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT)

• Health Ministry (Ministerio de Salud)

• Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE)

• National Institute for Housing and Urban Development (INVU)

• National Insurance Institute (INS)

• National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), division of MINAET Commercial buildings over 1,000 square meters:

• SETENA (MINAET technical secretariat)

• Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT)



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