PUERTO JIMÉNEZ, Puntarenas – Nearly six years after it was announced, controversy still envelopes a marina project at Crocodile Bay Resort, on the Osa Peninsula. The proposed project has left the tiny town divided, even among friends.
Álvaro Ugalde, two-time director of the Osa Conservation Area and co-founder of the Costa Rican national park system, is among those opposed to the marina for environmental reasons, despite a personal friendship with the marina’s developer, Crocodile Bay owner Cory Williams.
“My first reaction was that I wanted to talk to them,” Ugalde said. “I wanted to see if we could talk about it instead of fighting about it. Cory was very generous, he came to my house, but we just didn’t agree.”
Ugalde joined other environmentalists last week at Costa Rica’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, Sala IV, where justices decided to further review a zoning plan put forth by the Puerto Jiménez municipality. The marina would fall within that zoning plan’s jurisdiction.
The court’s decision to review the case was prompted by filings from an alliance of environmental groups on March 25. Despite unanimous court rulings in the hotel’s favor in January, the court’s latest decision could stall the marina’s construction even longer.
The court’s decision to review the zoning plan does not currently affect the marina, but because the marina is included in the plan, further legal action from environmental groups could prompt the court to halt construction.
“We expect to have this additional paperwork filed within the next 15 days,” Álvaro Sagot, an attorney representing environmental groups, said. “If it is accepted, Crocodile Bay will not be able to begin building.”
This isn’t the first stumbling block the project has encountered, Williams said, as environmentalists have challenged the project from the beginning.
“These groups are politically against the idea of development so they use bureaucracy and frivolous lawsuits hoping to get a no-build order,” he said.
The lawsuits kept Crocodile Bay from starting construction for four years, but Williams said they now plan to start building the $50 million project by the end of the year.
The marina’s permits allow for a 257-slip dock, 107 to be built by the hotel. Crocodile Bay said the project would create 400 new direct jobs and 400-800 more indirect jobs. Additionally, the marina will have a regulated gas station – which means it would comply with governmental environmental standards and be built so that gas does not seep into the water – and sewage pump-out services. Currently, there is no regulated marina in the Golfo Dulce to provide those services.
“Right now, we have boats in the gulf that cause a lot of contamination as it is,” Williams said. “Our marina is going to clean that up; it is going to apply order and allow the government to keep that in check.”
As it stands, Costa Rica only has three sanctioned marinas: Flamingo Marina in Playa Potrero, Los Sueños Marina in Herradura, and Papagayo Marina in Papagayo, near Playas del Coco. Each marina is required to go through a permitting process with the Commission of Tourist Marinas (CIMAT) within the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT). According to CIMAT Technical Manager Óscar Villalobos, the marina could help address the gulf’s problem with unregulated docks.
“Currently in the Golfo Dulce boats can leave from a number of different points,” he said. “A lot of these are dangerous for tourists, and they don’t provide any cleaning services. A marina is one option to give the area the services it needs. Costa Rica already has a lot of boating activity, and this is a way to make sure it is done responsibly.”
Regulation aside, the size of the project is what concerns environmentalists. In addition to the marina, Crocodile Bay plans to build 84 luxury villas, a parking lot and a “Waterfront Marina Village” that will include shops and restaurants.
“We aren’t concerned about just the marina,” said Bernardo Águilar, director of Fundación Neotrópica, one of the groups behind the Sala IV action. “This is actually a mega-project that is not in-step with the type of development that the area requires.”
According to Manuel Ramírez, executive director of Conservación Osa, another environmental group involved in the Sala IV case, Crocodile Bay was able to divide up permits for different construction phases and conduct independent environmental studies for each phase.
“Their environmental studies consider the impact of each part individually, but they do not consider the environmental impact as a whole,” he said. “Each study makes it seem like the effects are very small, but multiply that by the number of projects and it is significant.”
The lack of a government environmental study is the crux of the case against the municipality. Sagot argued that regulation should have passed through the Environment Ministry’s National Technical Secretariat (SETENA), based on a 2002 court decision requiring development plans to include environmental impact reports.
The Puerto Jiménez zoning plan and the Crocodile Bay permits did not go through SETENA, but the reason, Williams said, was because the permit requirements did not actually change until 2006. Crocodile Bay’s paperwork was filed in 2004.
“They are trying to apply a law that didn’t exist when the zoning plan was approved,” he said. “They have to cling to something before 2004, so they are going all the way back to the original 2002 case, before the laws enforcing that were even on the books.”