Coastal officials dispute destruction order

May 31, 2012

The Talamanca Municipal Council, which governs the southern Caribbean communities of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita, presented a letter May 14 to the Comptroller General challenging the agency’s right to enforce Costa Rica’s Maritime Zone Law.

In March, the Comptroller General ordered Talamanca municipal officials to destroy 13 homes and businesses allegedly in violation of the law, which regulates the 200-meter strip of land along coasts. Building within the first 50 meters of the median high-tide line is prohibited, and development within the next 150 meters is regulated and administered by local municipalities (TT, May 4, April 27, 20).

The law was passed in 1977, but has only been sporadically enforced – particularly in remote areas like the Talamanca coast, where communities – originally mostly comprised of Afro-Caribbean banana workers and fishermen – developed from the beach inland. No roads reached Puerto Viejo or Cahuita until the mid-1970s.

Homes and businesses built before the 1977 law should be exempt, but many Puerto Viejo and Cahuita residents, some who built before the law and some who built after, believe they could lose everything.

“We’re fighting,” said Manuel León Salazar, Talamanca’s municipal property register. “The municipality is attentive. … The Comptroller General can make suggestions to the municipality, but it cannot order us.”

Article 3 of Law 6043 (the Maritime Zone Law), states: “The use and administration of the maritime zone, the public zone as well as the restricted zone correspond to the municipality of the respective jurisdiction.”

Article 4 of the same law states: “The Attorney General’s office, by itself or representing any other state entity or interested party, will exercise legal control over fulfillment of the provisions of this law.”

The Comptroller General, according to Law 7428, which created the entity, is “a fundamental constitutional body of the state, an aid to the Legislative Assembly in the oversight of the Finance Ministry, and chancellor of the system of control provided for by this law.” 

Among the functions of the Comptroller General outlined in Costa Rica’s Constitution is approving municipal and autonomous agency budgets. 

Based on this, Talamanca municipal officials say the Comptroller General is overstepping its legal purview by ordering the demolition of buildings in the area’s maritime zone.

They also say that according to the Maritime Zone Law, municipalities and the Attorney General have jurisdiction over the law’s enforcement, not the Comptroller General.

If municipal officials are successful in protesting the Comptroller General’s involvement in the maritime zone, it doesn’t necessarily mean the 13 properties initially indicated as being in violation of the law are in the clear. 

The municipal council’s letter also indicates that council members are directing Talamanca Mayor Melvin Cordero to study the cases and to take necessary actions to assure compliance with the Maritime Zone Law. That means some properties could still face demolition.

The Comptroller General’s office responded to questions from The Tico Times via email, indicating the office received the municipality’s response.

“In the council’s response, they indicated they would present the appropriate authorities questions to determine the competency of this governing body in [maritime zone enforcement], a subject the [Comptroller General] will not address, because this is a power that this entity has,” wrote Mariela Azofeifa, a spokeswoman for the Comptroller General’s office.

“On the other hand,” Azofeifa wrote, “the same council is ordering the [Talamanca] mayor to take the necessary actions to attend to the apparently irregular cases reported by this governing body.”

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