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Park Concession Scandal Erupts

Visitors to the Poás Volcano, on the northwestern edge of the Central Valley, will soon have a better chance of escaping a blizzard of ash in the event of an eruption.

A new early warning security and communication system, made possible by a $20,000 donation from the government of Taiwan, will monitor visitor traffic through closed-circuit cameras and provide loudspeaker coverage throughout heavily visited areas of the national park.

According to the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), the warning system would serve as an alert for any kind of natural disaster, such as an eruption or mudslide, and also help monitor crime.

A sought-after slice of beachfront in one of Costa Rica’s most-visited national parks is at the center of yet another coastal land concession fiasco.

The land dispute between the government and a Spanish developer is raising questions about legal loopholes that allow foreigners to get beach concessions despite laws meant to prohibit them from doing so.

The controversy also shows how cashstrapped municipalities and other institutions are clashing in a developmental chaos that is sweeping the nation, and particularly the coastal areas, as a boom in private investment floods Costa Rica.

“The surge of development in the past two, three years has only become worse. There’s no way (municipalities) have the manpower or capability to control what’s going on,” said real estate lawyer Thomas Burke.

It is the second coastal concession scandal in as many months. In a similar coastal concession uproar stirred up by the daily La Nación last month, the coastal municipality of La Cruz near the Nicaraguan border, in a 2003 concession-granting frenzy, awarded 18 beachfront concessions to a company represented by a 25-year-old Italian real estate developer. It was later discovered that part of the concession land is the site of the Public Security Ministry’s police training school and belongs to the central government.

The municipality has since stated its intention to annul that concession (TT, March 2).

Broad Front legislator José Merino publicly asked the Government Attorney’s Office this week to reconsider its legal stance on concessions in the Maritime Zone. He cited recent cases like this as “fraud” in which foreigners find loopholes to control public coastal territory.

State attorney Hilbert Calderón said the office hasn’t received a concrete complaint to give its opinion on.

In the Manuel Antonio case, the Aguirre Municipal Council approved the disputed concession in 1999, but the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) rejected it in 2000 before expanding the popular national park in 2001 to include the land where the concession would have been.

After notary public Griselio Albán somehow registered the 1,200-square-meter beach concession in the Public Registry in 2005, the Comptroller’s Office –a large institution that has taken on a watchdog roll in a country with a weak rule of law – responded by flashing its teeth at developmental chaos in Aguirre.

Now, Aguirre Mayor Oscar Monge, who took office last month, is consulting with his lawyers to see to it that the concession is annulled once and for all, after a harsh March 2 report from the Comptroller General’s Office ordered him to do so.

Former Mayor Giovani Acuña told the daily La Nación he hadn’t been notified by the ICT of the concessions status and that to his knowledge, the concession is in effect.

Attempts to seek comment from the Registry this week bore no fruit.

New Mayor Monge blasted the past mayor and council, saying they’re part of a “black hand” moving things in Quepos.

Last month, the Comptroller’s Office scolded the Municipality of Aguirre for having approved a regulatory plan for Playa Pará, near ManuelAntonioNational Park, saying the area includes national forest under the jurisdiction of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE). The Comptroller’s Office said the municipality overlooked other institutions in approving the plan, and ordered it to be annulled despite some 22 requests for coastal land concessions there. The report also said the municipality didn’t ask MINAE to survey the land as required under the Maritime Zone Law.

The Maritime Zone is a 200-meter strip along the nation’s coasts that was set aside in 1977 for public and restricted use. The first 50-meter coastal strip is for public use.

The next 150 meters were declared restricted, which municipalities can concession out, subject to approval by the ICT, once they’ve established regulatory plans.

Concessions can be given only to Costa Ricans or residents who have been in the country at least five years. Companies more than 50% owned by foreigners are also prohibited from obtaining concessions.

A Legal Mess

In the Manuel Antonio case, the publicly registered land concession was transferred a month and a half ago from its original concessionaire, Quepos businessman David Delgado, to the company Investments the Beautiful Ocean Pacific of the North CA, S.A., a company represented by Spanish developer Balbino Alegre.

In 2005, Delgado was accused by the state of land usurpation, a charge the Aguirre Criminal Court dismissed last October because the court determined Delgado believed it was a legitimate concession.

Alegre’s lawyer Alberto Castillo, contacted by The Tico Times this week, insists the concession is legitimate despite the Comptroller’s ruling, the ICT’s refusal and the Maritime Zone Law.

Alegre, who said he bought the property in “good faith,” this week requested an injunction from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) against the Aguirre Mayor,Municipal Council president and the Comptroller’s Office. The court has accepted the case for review.

Alegre has plans to build a $1.8 million, 55-shop, two-story commercial center on the spot, which he says would meet the commercial needs of tourists entering the park after street vendors were forced out of the area.

Oscar Díaz, municipal building permit director for the Municipality of Aguirre, says he knows of no building permits requested or given for the project.

Manuel Antonio, one of the oldest, smallest and most-visited national parks in the country, is home to several beaches and stretches of coastal forest.



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