TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – This northwestern Pacific coast community is aspiring to become the international paragon of modern, integrated beachfront living.
Imagine a pedestrian downtown accessed by buses and local electric trams that run from public parking lots. Cars would circulate on a four-lane, peripheral avenue that would serve the community’s backstage, complete with a university, sports center, hospital, park and civic center.
This is the vision of Héctor Chavarria, an architect at National Institute for Housing and Urban Development (INVU), who is in charge of designing a zoning plan, or plan regulador in Spanish, that will steer development in Tamarindo over the next 25 to 30 years.
In a recent public presentation of his plan, Chavarria compared his vision to Mexico City’s historic center, which is preserved by low-impact foot traffic.
By contrast, Tamarindo’s main street is characterized by muddy potholes and clogged with beach-going 4x4s and unrestricted curbside parking.
“Tamarindo is going to be a city,” he said, more by way of observation than proclamation.
Though Tamarindo’s unofficial boundaries encompass about 10,000 largely wideopen hectares, it is difficult to ignore the urbanizing trends, as cranes and high-rises shape a skyline once dominated by palm trees.
Under the zoning plan, land zoned for agricultural, forest and touristic uses would occupy the bulk of the regulated land and the largest swath of beachfront land, from Playa Langosta to the northern part of Playa Avellanas. Here, developers would be able to build low-density apartments, hotels and condos, along with restaurants and other tourist-frequented establishments.
Chavarria acknowledges that the final plan would have no effect on the edifices that already violate the plan’s regulations. The current plan would limit vertical building to six stories. It would also break residential zoning into four subcategories based on living unit density. The least dense residences would occupy the most central part of Tamarindo.
In other areas, the familiar face of Tamarindo would hardly be transformed. Land zoned for commercial touristic businesses – boutiques, hotels, pharmacies, restaurants, bars, galleries – would continue to line Tamarindo’s current access road and the downtown beachfront. Larger commercial developments, like shopping centers and gas stations, would be limited to two outer lying hubs.
The plan would protect three existing mangrove forests. These would remain untouched – the only land not approved for development by the proposed plan.
During the recent meeting, developers scrutinized copies of the colorful zoning chart to see where prospective projects fell, while locals voiced concern over the native community’s future exclusion from the grown-up version of a tourist destination already dominated by foreigners.
“This plan is unique because it addresses the locals’ and foreigners’ needs,” said Chavarria, who also designed the zoning plans for Playa Zapotillal, Playa Nombre de Jesús, Isla Caballo and Alajuela.
Originally, organizers had billed the meeting as the presentation of the final document. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Chavarria and Federico Amador, the director of the Tamarindo Improvement Association (APMT), publicly presented drafts of the plan to Santa Rosa, Villareal, Pinilla, and Tamarindo, the communities that would be the most affected by the plan, and encouraged interested parties to suggest changes.
But Amador said the plan will not be finalized until it incorporates an environmental fragility investigation (IFA) of the district, which is yet to be completed.
“There will be a change once the IFA is complete, but not a very big one,” said Chavarria. He pointed out that an IFA has already been done for Tamarindo.
The APMT is still trying to raise $10,000 to pay for the IFA. Amador hopes it will be completed by early next year. In the meantime, people can continue to submit possible modifications to the plan to INVU.
Once complete, the plan will need approval from the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA). Then it will be turned over to the Santa Cruz municipality, which must approve it and hold a cabildo, a public meeting during which residents will have another opportunity to suggest changes. The plan would finally close 15 days later but not take effect for another year.
Builders seeking construction permits during this year would still have to comply with the plan’s rules, although plans submitted before this date would not.
The APMT has been working towards a zoning plan for more than 10 years. Once effective, the plan would represent the law, enforced by the Santa CruzMunicipality.
However, it would still be flexible. San José’s zoning plan, for instance, is revised every two years.
“This plan is the first seed,” said Chavarria.