MANUEL ANTONIO, Puntarenas – When authorities arrived at Victor Ramírez’s beachside bar and restaurant at the crack of dawn with two backhoes to tear apart half the restaurant that had been his life’s bread and butter, he was asleep, nearly 200 kilometers away, in his Heredia home north of San José.
Twice before, authorities had come to demolish the family-owned restaurant, Mar y Sombra, but their plans had been foiled by protestors who stood in front of the restaurant and shielded it with a barrier of parked cars (TT, Feb. 10).
This time, Victor’s brother and Mar y Sombra co-owner Federico Ramírez was the only one in the restaurant when riot police, municipal workers and a state prosecutor arrived before 7 a.m. They removed the protesting co-owner from the building, and, in accordance with a 1977 law many coastal municipalities are finally getting around to enforcing, albeit haphazardly, municipal workers plowed through the oldest restaurant in this popular beach destination for tourists.
Half of the restaurant was left standing. The other half, which was inside a 50-meter coastal strip set aside for public use, was left in shambles.
The 37-year-old restaurant was the latest casualty of an epic nationwide campaign to protect Costa Rica’s rich coastal resources. Twenty-nine years ago, a 50-meter coastal strip was set aside for public use. The next 150 meters were declared “restricted,” land that can be concessioned by municipalities once they’ve established regulatory plans. This combined 200 meters makes up the Maritime Zone.
After being passed, portions of the 1977 Maritime Zone Law lay dormant for decades. But now the law is suddenly being put into motion by a tourism boom and oversight on the part of the Comptroller General’s Office, which recently began breathing down necks of coastal municipalities not enforcing the law uniformly.
After decades of lax enforcement, municipalities were given a kick in the pants three years ago when the Comptroller General’s Office created a branch called the Administration of Livestock,Agriculture and Environment. The branch has been responsible for publishing several reports that shined light on free-for-all coastal development and languid municipal coastal enforcement, according to Comptroller’s Office spokeswoman Mariela Azofeifa.
Splashing water in the face of a law that was in a quarter-century coma has sent municipalities scrambling to design coastal growth plans and take control of Costa Rica’s neglected beaches – a fragile source of natural beauty as well as a gold mine for Costa Rica’s booming tourism industry.
The Comptroller’s most recent report last month says the sparse enforcement of the law has been haphazard and uneven, resulting in “deterioration” of the nation’s coasts, and that regulation plans have benefited a few private builders instead of the general public.
What’s more, many buildings that have been demolished or face imminent demolition, such as Mar y Sombra, were around before the law.
To be saved from the bulldozers, such constructions would have to be in the name of the original owner, and ownership cannot be passed down to the next generation, according to Francisco Canales, who manages the Maritime Zone for the Municipality of Carrillo. Owners are also prohibited from making improvements on the house.
“Many people are in that situation, in which they built (on the coast) before the law was passed,” said Gonzalo Vargas, president of the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR). He said Costa Rica’s beaches attract about 60% of the 1.6 million tourists who come to the country each year.
Vargas said the tourism industry has been pushing for the nation’s beaches to be better regulated.
“We have to be careful that settlers don’t keep invading the coast, moving in a few meters day by day,” he said.
29 Years Later
All along Costa Rica’s coasts, municipalities are taking steps to develop coastal regulation plans, demolish illegal settlements and grant concessions to those that are legal.
Nicoya Mayor Jennifer Flores said Nicoya has been devising its new plan to regulate the 150 meters of restricted coastal lands. She said the plan will involve using money from concessionaires to build public beach bathrooms in Playa Sámara, invest in conservation efforts, and to demolish remaining illegal constructions within the 50-meter coastal strip.
“We’ve already demolished various (beach settlements),” she said, adding that of the dozens of illegal constructions within the municipality’s jurisdiction, the city has yet to demolish even half.
Last year, the Comptroller released a report that reprimanded the municipalities of Nicoya in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and Golfito in the Southern Zone, among others, for having neglected the law (TT, Sept. 23, 2005).
Golfito Mayor Aida Soto said that if buildings were constructed inside the 50 meters after 1977, “That’s the municipality’s fault.” She said the municipality will have to pay indemnification to owners with rights to the land, a cost that she said will run “many, many millions.”
María del Carmen Vargas, Municipal Coordinator of the Maritime Zone in Golfito, said the municipality has notified the owners of nearly 30 illegal beach constructions that they are not in compliance with the law.Vargas said the city may have to demolish the constructions if the owners don’t do it themselves. All were built after the law went into effect, she said.
“The people are mad, but one must be very sincere and tell them that without any rights to the land or a construction permit, they cannot be there,” she said.
In the northwestern Municipality of Carrillo, authorities are trying to figure out how the law will apply to some of the oldest beach tourist destinations in the country.
“The problem for us is Playa del Coco and Playa Hermosa. They are beaches that began to develop more than 40 years ago,” said Francisco Canales, who manages the Maritime Zone for the Municipality of Carrillo. He said the city has demolished a few houses, but most beachfront homes
that have been demolished were done “voluntarily” by the owners.
“To fight with the city isn’t worth it to them,” he said. Owners of other coastal buildings are concerned.
“Clearly I’m worried,” said Fredi Varauna, who owns the Luna Tica in Playa del Coco, built in the 1950s.
Varauna said he hasn’t been able to make any improvements on his hotel, because such improvements could mean demolition for buildings such as his. Varauna said the “spirit of the law” –which would protect the nation’s coastal natural resources – is well intentioned. But he hopes officials will take into consideration those who have been living there since before the law was made.
Though the Comptroller’s Office has yet to crack down on the Maritime Zone in the Caribbean, Limón Mayor Roger Rivera said the Municipality of Limón has already begun to develop a regulatory plan.
“The first step is a regulatory plan. Then we’ll be able to decide who is there legally and illegally,” he said, adding that the fates of about a dozen constructions within the 50-meter zone are yet to be determined.
Shadow of a Restaurant
On a recent morning, the sun leaked through a thin green canopy above Mar y Sombra Restaurant, and reflected off a giant debris-spangled mud puddle where half of the building once stood.
“Now we have a swimming pool instead of a kitchen,” said Federico Ramírez, who was in front of the building explaining to passing tourists why the restaurant they once frequented was half-missing and cordoned off with yellow caution tape.
Costa Rican tourist Antonio Morales pulled up, stepped out of his car and gawked at the gaping construction.
“This is shameless,” said Morales, a San José resident who once frequented the beachside restaurant popular for its seafood and dance parties. It was the only local beach establishment with public restrooms, he pointed out.
“The arbitrary way that the whole event was carried out was not due process,” said an enraged Victor Ramírez of the Aug. 16 incident.
Though the criminal court of Quepos ruled in favor of the demolition in June, Ramírez argues the law doesn’t apply to Mar y Sombra because it was built well before the law passed, is still under original ownership and has not been expanded. An administrative contention judge from San José ruled that the demolition should be suspended until the issue is resolved in that court, but the demolition was carried out despite contradicting rulings (TT, Sept. 1).
The Tico Times was not able to get a copy of the Quepos ruling by press time. The Ramírez brothers say they will file complaints with the Public Security Ministry and the Quepos police. But that means the family is now in the sticky situation of waging a legal battle against the same municipality with which it must apply for a concession permit.
Meanwhile, half a building remains. Federico Ramírez said he doesn’t knowwhat costs of reconstruction will be.
“The worst loss is the sentimental and moral loss – things that are worth more than money,” he said.