PLAYA GRANDE – The four kilometer stretch of beach along the Pacific shore here is nearly empty most hours of the day. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, a few dozen beachgoers show up to jump in the quiet waves, soak in rays from a cloudless sky or climb a giant rock that marks Playa Grande’s northern border.
Just over 50 meters inland from where the tide meets the sand is a small embankment on top of which sits a thick line of bushes that slants gently toward the land and reaches a height of about 10 feet.
This hedge – or green wall, as most have come to call it – bands the entire crescent-shaped beach from north to south. Behind it is vacant land, with some exceptions, shaded by 20-foot-tall trees and covered with soil and weeds.
It is this undisturbed area, at the heels of the green buffer zone and inland, that has been the battleground of a raging debate among environmentalists, residents and developers for nearly 20 years. Most recently, this plot of land has forced the discussion in the Legislative Assembly of a proposed bill that would attempt to both clarify and expand the types of activities that should be permitted here.
Playa Grande is home to Costa Rica’s Las Baulas National Marine Park, arguably the most important nesting beach for leatherback turtles in the eastern Pacific. National parks are strictly protected and, by law, no development – proposed or already built – can exist within their limits.
Along all of Costa Rica’s coasts, the first 50-meters of land from where the average high tide breaks is considered public property and also is protected from development under the Maritime Zone Law. No one questions the status of these 50 meters at Playa Grande.
What is in question, however, is the point at which the boundary of the Las Baulas National Marine Park ends.
The park was first created by presidential decree in 1991 and then established by law in 1995. One part of the law states that the park extends 75 meters inland from the 50-meter public zone, while another part of the same law states that it extends 75 meters out to sea, according to a 2004 report from the Office of the Attorney General.
The confusion arises from an error in the law, the report concludes, and it also states that the park was actually meant to extend 75 meters inland from the inland edge of the 50-meter public zone (TT April 22, 2005).
The problem is that landowners built small houses and hotels within these 75 meters before the park was created, and they disagree with the attorney general’s interpretation.
“The law clearly states 75 meters aguas adentro (or, out to sea),”said Manfred Marshall, whose family has owned a 30-room hotel within 75 meters of the beach since before the dispute began. “We don’t agree with the attorney Ggeneral’s interpretation of the law, and we don’t believe that he has the power to make the interpretation.”
In order to comply with the attorney general’s interpretation of the National Park Law, Marshall’s hotel and any other development inside these 75 meters must go, and the land purchased by the state would be incorporated into the park.
The government has begun the process of expropriating more than 60 properties inside the park, according to local residents, but it hasn’t completed the process because of what it claims to be a lack of funds.
Exact property values are difficult to pin down, but owners who are closest to the beach said that the Finance Ministry has appraised their land at prices that range from $600 to $1,200 per square meter.
Government officials have estimated the total cost of expropriation of private lands in this area to be as much as $800 million.
To complicate matters for developers, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) annulled all legally obtained environmental viability building permits on Dec. 16, 2008, for properties inside the park.
The court also ordered the suspension of all permits for properties within 500 meters of the park’s limits to create a buffer zone for Las Baulas National Park (TT Jan. 16).
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Tom Battaglia who bought property within the 500-meter buffer zone years ago. A small development on his property now sits only partially completed, and he said he can’t touch it because of the Sala IV ruling.
“That buffer zone doesn’t exist in any law,” Battaglia said. “The Sala IV created that buffer zone and that’s something they can’t do. They are legislating from the bench.”
Scientists and environmental groups insist that the interpretation issued by the Office of the Attorney General is binding and the park boundaries must stay as they are, including the 50 meters of public land and the additional 75 meters further inland. This would mean that expropriation must occur.
These groups insist that continuing development of the area would spell disaster for the future of the leatherback turtles, which they say have suffered population declines of up to 90 percent in the past two decades.
“You have to protect their environment against excessive human development,” said Andy Bystrom, a spokesman for the Marine Turtle Restoration Program. “There is no confusion about the attorney general’s ruling. It’s the law.”
Environmentalists and legislators have said that the land isn’t worth as much as property owners claim, and Bystrom said he hopes an agreement can be reached about the values so non-profit groups can begin to raise money to help the government expropriate the lands.
Bystrom noted that international conservation groups raised $5 million to aid expropriations in 2005, but the money had to be returned to donors because the government did not use the funds.
Officials at the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) did not confirm or deny information about these donations by press time.
Residents, landowners and other government officials favor a new bill that would “correct the limits of the Las Baulas National Marine Park” and create a “Las Baulas National Wildlife Refuge,” a distinction that would allow developers to continue construction, within height and density limits, thus eliminating the need for expropriation.
The area actually received the national wildlife refuge status by decree in 1987 and by law in 1990 before it was declared a national park in 1991. The creation of least 18 lots, on which building is now blocked by the national park dispute, received approval in the late 1980’s, according to Battaglia.
In terms of protecting the turtles against poachers, the bill would create 35 ranger stations to watch the park. There is currently one station, although the Leatherback Trust coordinates volunteer projects to patrol the beach during nesting season.
But until a resolution is reached, all parties involved will remain at a standstill, facing each other with furrowed brows, at least 75 meters apart.