San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Rising Tides Spell Trouble

The critical 50-meter public zone along Costa Rica’s beaches is creeping inland a little more every year.


Owners of buildings that once were situated safely behind the imaginary line that demarks the country’s sandy “do not enter” area are seeing the land in front of their properties slowly disappear, pushing their pieces of ocean-front real estate closer – or in some cases into – government-owned land.


Due in part to climate change, global sea levels rose approximately six centimetres between 1980 and 2000, according to scientific studies. Some Costa Rican researchers believe ocean waters have risen another three to five centimeters during this decade.


As a result, high tides have crept further up the beach and homes and businesses are now teetering on the brink of restricted  boundaries. Some even believe that some existing coastal developments, if too close to the water, could one day disappear.


“It’s a serious problem, especially in regards to environmental protection and legal and economic limits,” said Jorge Cabrera, an attorney andUniversityofCosta Ricalaw professor who has studied the Maritime Zone Law, which defines the public zone and regulates the rights of beachfront landholders.


According to the law, the public zone – where concessions of land in the hands of private individuals as well as construction are prohibited – extends 50 meters inland from “the ordinary high tide (line).” And with tides constantly rising, this public zone is encroaching on some beachfront developments.


In light of rising sea levels, some wonder if the water’s edge is the best mark from which to make calculations. “The criterion for measuring is absolutely wrong,” said Alejandro Gutiérrez, director of the International Ocean Institute based at Costa Rica’s National University (UNA) in Heredia, north of San José. “Why would you measure something from a line you can’t see and is always changing?”


Reports of restaurants removing beachside tables and chairs in the northwestprovinceofGuanacastehave begun to surface as business owners have noticed approaching tides. Scientists have projected that the peninsula on which the Pacific port town of Puntarenas sits could become an island in as few as 60 years.


Gutiérrez recommended picking a more stable marker, such as the first line of vegetation. This, he said, would be more adequate  for a law whose purpose is to allow people to walk along an open beach and to protect buildings from the ocean’s tides and waves.


For Cabrera, though, one resolution for property owners is already contained in the law. Article 24 of the public zone chapter declares that any private concession that finds itself within the 50 public meters due to “natural causes that vary the topography of the land” will maintain its rights as long as the proprietor does not change or remodel any part of any development within those 50 meters. Meanwhile, it says, the concession should be adjusted to reflect the change in topography.


If the owner doesn’t comply with the regulation, the government should seek expropriation, according to the article.


Although this solution sounds simple, the Costa Rican government has already run into problems in trying to scrape together enough funds to expropriate properties it claims are within the boundaries of Las  Baulas National Park in Guanacaste’s Playa Grande. Instead, officials proposed a bill that would create a mixed wildlife refuge in the area, allowing property owners to stay and eliminating the need to hand over millions of dollars in cash.


Environmentalists worry that squeezing beaches and properties too close together will destroy what area there is left for nesting sea turtles. Leatherback sea turtles, which lay eggs on Playa Grande and Junquillal along the northern Pacific coast, already have been threatened by increasing sand temperatures.


If the beach continues to shrink, they say, the heat and lack of space could contribute to the extinction of the species.


“As the beach climbs up, more human obstacles impede the turtles’ natural processes,” said Ana Fonseca, a marine turtle program officer with the World Wildlife Fund. “They just won’t have any space to lay eggs.”


Fonseca said she believes the public zone should be rethought, “not only for turtles, but for investors, too.”


Whether or not it is wise for municipalities and developers to rely on a shrinking public zone defined by debatable means, this definition remains the law and there are no major plans to change it. “Legally, this is the way to measure the Maritime Zone,” Cabrera said. “Some experts have suggested other ways to determine it, but they don’t seem very practical when you consider the regulatory plans and existing concessions.”


Over the past decade, the National Geographic Institute has placed small concrete pegs to mark the inland edge of the public zone and denoted them on a digital map. By law, these pegs cannot be moved and the digital coordinates cannot be changed.


Coastal municipalities also have raced to implement zoning laws and urban development plans based on the markers.


So, for now, beachfront dwellers and business owners will be left seeing a portion of their development rights rolled back, day by day, as the tides roll in. And at the same time, sea turtles will be left with less beach on which to lay their eggs.


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