TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – For a guy developing a legal, ecofriendly resort in a booming beach town in a region where one in four coastal developments is downright illegal, Bruce Main sure has been catching a lot of flack.
Environmentalists and some community members have been causing a little uproar over the giant $425 million Tamarindo Preserve development located along the San Francisco Estuary, one of the most ecologically rich and biodiverse niches on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast.
“The Tamarindo Preserve is the biggest threat to the natural environment Tamarindo has ever seen. They claim ownership over a large portion of the San Francisco Estuary, which most people believed to be a protected wetland,” said local resident and Tamarindo Improvement Association member Michael Gottlieb. Gottlieb lives at the foot of a once-forested hilltop that the Preserve has shaved clean to provide a view of the ocean and estuary to its future residents.
He says he has been awakened on more than one occasion to the grinding of chainsaws in the Preserve.
Main, who defends his project as perfectly legal, wasn’t surprised to hear some of the complaints. The soft-spoken Canadian Main and his San José-born designer and associate Richard Müller sat down with The Tico Times at the Hotel Real Intercontinental in the western suburb of Escazú on a recent afternoon to address some of the community’s complaints.
The two had to put construction on hold for a month in May while the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) temporarily revoked the Preserve’s environmental permits to investigate allegations that a condo complex the Preserve built was located inside a mangrove area that was part of Las Baulas National Marine Park’s buffer zone. Though the investigation cleared the Preserve and the permits were reinstated, SETENA is still in the process of reviewing the Preserve’s project.
And still, allegations keep trickling in. “Because this is a forest and it’s inside of Las Baulas National Marine Park’s buffer zone, tree cutting shouldn’t be permitted. On the contrary, the impact of cutting 167 trees should be evaluated to determine what measures should be taken to compensate this environmental damage,” forest engineer and private consultant Edwin Alpízar said in a report he released this month on the Preserve project.
Emel Rodríguez, the Tempisque Conservation Area director for the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), which includes the entire NicoyaPeninsula, says the project is legal. And Main says there may be confusion because the place he deforested to put up the condo was on the border of the mangroves and was heavily forested, which is why some may have mistaken it for a mangrove forest. Of course, government officials didn’t come out and stake the limits of the mangrove area until after they were in talks with Main.
As unfettered development runs rampant along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast (TT, March 3), communities like Tamarindo have seen development bonanzas. Parking nightmares, clogged traffic and threats that clean water for drinking and swimming will soon be unavailable have grabbed the community’s attention. In this town without a wastewater treatment plant, an August Health Ministry report found high levels of contamination in the area’s runoff waters, much of which drain into the ocean.
As the situation becomes more critical, some residents here are pointing fingers at developers and others have called for building moratoriums until infrastructure problems can be straightened out (TT, Jan. 21, 2005).
Allegations against developers in Tamarindo are running rife, according to Rodríguez. For instance, he now has three technicians investigating a complaint that construction of the condominium development Naturalia, also between Tamarindo and Playa Langosta, has crossed over into municipal land, resulting in unwarranted deforestation.
What bothers the owner of the 250-hectare Preserve – nearly half of which he’s set aside as protected land – is that he’s one of the few developers in the region investing in conservation.
“Unfortunately there are people who believe there should be no development.
(They think) now that they’re here, no one else should come. It’s a point of view attractive to a limited number of people,” Main said. “There are a lot of developments here. Why are they going after this one?”
Up on the hill that the Preserve deforested, there’s a breathtaking view of San Francisco point and the Pacific Ocean. Down near the mangroves is Main’s controversial condo complex and up closer to Playa Langosta is a highrise flanked by two towering cranes.As the sun sets, flocks of white birds swoop westward over the estuary toward the coast.
The San Francisco Estuary is like the crown jewel of a stretch of beach that has been dubbed Costa Rica’s gold coast, where tourists flock each year to soak up sun. It’s where the San Francisco River flows into the Pacific Ocean onto what is now Playa Langosta, a popular beach for nesting sea turtles as well as surfers. According to studies that the Preserve has contracted, there are some 65 bird species that come through here and more than 100 species of trees.
Trying to conserve it, Main says, is a “legal nightmare,” referring to the litigious dance he’s engaged in to comply with the National Park’s vague laws as well as each and every government institution that must approve the project.
For the past decade, Tamarindo’s runoff water has been draining into the estuary. Trucks come in and illegally steal plants. Others come to dump trash. Drug addicts use the mangrove area as a home, where they sift through the garbage and leave their waste strewn about.
So Main and Müller, who were longtime associates in the ailing textile industry, came into the real estate market with two objectives: number one, to make money, and number two, to conserve the environment.
They’ve said only 8% of their 250 hectares will be developed (TT, Aug. 4, 2006), and Müller said for every tree that is cut in the Preserve, five trees will be planted elsewhere in the region. They will plant trees near water sources, sponsor river cleanups and community environmental education, and nearly half of all the land is either private refuge or privately held protected mangrove forest which residents of the project will be obligated to contribute to monthly, and which will be monitored by MINAE – in fact they even have a MINAE representative working out of their sales office.
Though the idea is to protect the vast majority of the land, and even make it a refuge that can be used by the public, Main admits the project has been doing “intense development” in some parts of the land he said were already urbanized to some extent.
The Preserve project has received permits to chop down at least 167 trees in specific areas inside the property, and will likely want to cut down another estimated 250 trees, according to Main.
Some residents and environmentalists alike have been put off by the development’s decision to deforest a lot to erect an apartment project right on the border of Las Baulas National Marine Park’s protected mangrove buffer zone.
“I wouldn’t have made condos so close to a protected mangrove area. They are outside of the protected mangrove, but they’re very close,” Rodríguez said. “It’s not the best, but it’s legal.”
Main, who says only 14 trees were cut down there, is aware of the criticism. He even hired a private consultant to conduct a survey in the Tamarindo community, which found only about 10% of residents opposed the construction of that apartment complex.
Main said he suspects that allegations against his project are coming from a vocal but small part of the community, which isn’t representative of the community as a whole. Particularly, he said there are a couple “rogue” members of the Improvement Association who are out to get him.
He’s not sure why. Perhaps because Main angered some Improvement Association members when he rejected an offer to become a member and rejected a request from the Association to donate land for a wastewater treatment plant that would filter off into the estuary.
But Association board member Walter Hoevel has taken a more diplomatic approach. He told The Tico Times that bringing attention to the Preserve project’s alleged problems “may cause awareness, but without a recipe for a solution and working together to fix damages such awareness is worthless for all involved parties.”
Main leaned back in his seat in the expansive lobby of the Hotel Real Intercontinental. Cool, calm, collected, he shows no signs of throwing in the towel any time soon. Already one of the biggest landowners in Tamarindo, he has plans to purchase another 55 hectares and is in talks to acquire even more land.
“You gotta play the card you got,” he said, “and Costa Rica’s advantage is that it has a lot of developable land.”