Beach concessions to face enforcement
The environmental ministry is about to specify where construction can go within the borders of beach concessions.
Even though an individual or a firm may already have an approved concession, the ministry is ready to rule out construction in forest land, land with steep slopes and wetlands.
And the ministry may initiate destruction of structures that already have been built on land that is now being declared off limits. In some concession areas 60 to 70 percent of the land is being safeguarded by the environmental ministry.
What is involved is a reevaluation of the rules that govern the maritime zone, the 250 meters above mean high tide. Anything built illegally — from small structures to hotels — can be in the way of the law.
Legal battles can postpone the inevitable but not delay fate forever. The Mar y Sombra restaurant bit the dust in August after a lengthy, futile legal battle due to its location in the maritime zone, although that was a municipal case.
The first maps are out and it appears the ministry already knows what the decision will be in a case that is sitting on a magistrate’s desk at the Sala IV constitutional court awaiting signatures.
The case, number 04-005607-0007CO, is the famous action that stopped concession granting in the maritime zone in 2004 because of outcries against Executive Decree 31750-MINAE-TUR.
The decree would have allowed the construction of buildings up to 14 meters high and permitted the logging of forest areas to make way for “ecotourism” projects.
The decree would have legalized the range of impacts that tourism projects would have had on forests: allowing the cutting of trees up to 15 percent of the concession area in primary forests, and 25 percent in secondary forests.
The amazing part of all this is many tourism developments are already built in restricted areas of the maritime zone with permissions given to them from local municipalities and approvals from the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo. But they lack approval from the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía, which until now has not taken an active role.
In some cases where building took place in restricted areas of forest zones, the approvals directly conflict with the forestry law and are illegal. A case in fact, is Proyecto Playa Dulce Vida where the company cut down the forest to build its development. The freezing of the permissions arrived too late to stop the destruction.
Proyecto Playa Dulce Vida on the central Pacific coast is just one example of the many areas restructured by developers before the environmental ministry could get its act together to stop them.
Quite by accident, the executive decree spotlighted the already existing activities, and, by doing so, triggered anger at the ministry which lead to the constitutional case.
The hoopla is not about the forest. It is about power. The environmental ministry felt trumped by the executive decree. The decree usurped Forest Law 7575 where the environmental ministry is the only institution in the country to determine what is forest and what is not, ministry workers decided.
Law 7575 permits zero development in restricted forest areas. The criteria determining these zones include tree density and size along with the slope of the land.
The labor union syndicate of the ministry filed the constitution case with the Sala IV. They were protecting their jobs and recognized the warning signs that the ministry was about to lose power. The syndicate surely will win the case, and the executive decree will be voided, thus reinstating the ministry’s power as king over these lands.
Environmental ministry workers must know this because they are out in force inventorying the entire country’s maritime zone to determine what are concessionable areas within these restricted territories. In a concession, a private company leases public land for private use including ventures for profit. Many major hotels and other developments are constructed on concession land.
When the smoke clears and the power struggle is over with executive decree of 2004 rescinded, what is going to happen to developers who built in restricted areas of the maritime zone?
Recent events reflect that the country will stop at nothing to protect the maritime zone because the area is part of the public trust and the legislature, courts, and ministries must defend it at all costs for the people of Costa Rica.
Structures existing for years are falling to the wrecking balls of today. A victory for the ministry in the Sala IV case is sure to trigger other, similar demolitions.