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Guanacaste Mega-Project in Court’s Hands

Originally Published in the Tico Times, Print Edition, Thursday, September 20, 2012. Click Here to Read Online.

By Suzanna Lourie | Special to The Tico Times

FLAMINGO BEACH, Guanacaste – Despite a pending injunction against Las Catalinas, a massive luxury housing project near Flamingo Beach and Potrero, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, has given the green light for developers to build a private road on the property.

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The court halted construction at the 1,200-acre site in early August while it studied a lawsuit filed by environmental advocates seeking an injunction. On Aug. 31, the court said it would allow the new road, but other work would be suspended pending a review of the case.

Luis Carlos Sánchez and Roberto Faris, both noted environmentalists, filed the lawsuit against Las Catalinas Holding Properties Limited, alleging the project was improperly using well water without the proper permits. The lawsuit also asked the Sala IV to investigate other permits issued at the site due to alleged irregularities in drilling and logging.

“It’s more frustrating than anything else,” said Las Catalinas General Manager James Berry, who oversees daily operations at the site. “We had to fire 80 people, and after six years of hard work and doing everything correctly, to have to stop and wait [is frustrating].”

For several weeks, the Sala IV has reviewed the legality of permits granted by the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute and other government agencies. Although the development team at Las Catalinas is confident the court will find no error in the project’s building permits and legal records,

members of the regional environmental group Confraternidad Guanacasteca aren’t convinced.

“We spent a year and a half going through all of Las Catalinas’ records and came to the conclusion that it looks like the environment is being violated,” said Confraternidad member Robert Campbell, an expat who has lived in Costa Rica for 11 years.

In the case of Las Catalinas, the Confraternidad was one of the primary forces that investigated the project, eventually leading them to build a case to submit to the Sala IV in August.

“I’m for sustainable development and respecting the land, but at Las Catalinas they are planning on building around 2,500 houses, and the fact is there are not enough resources to support that high of a demand,” Campbell said.

According to Campbell, Las Catalinas has been getting its well water from an aquifer that hasn’t been properly studied to find out whether or not it can meet the demands of the large development project.

“When you start a project, one basic requirement is you have enough water for it,” Campbell said. “If you’re in a rural area you need a viable concession for water.”

Campbell said developers might have pure intentions with the project, and that they would likely point to documents from the municipality believed to be proper water concessions, but he questioned if the letters were valid.

“It’s not atypical; some municipalities don’t even know what a letter of water concession is,” Campbell said. “Most developers don’t know what’s …  real versus what’s fudged because they don’t understand the details in Spanish,” Campbell said.

Confraternidad also believes that Las Catalinas has been developing on forested land versus building on the approved pastureland.

“The challenge here is development in Costa Rica is almost impossible; it doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, good or bad, rich or poor, it’s more about the regulations,” Campbell added.

In response to questions raised by the Confraternidad, Las Catalinas developers stand by their legal documents, as well as how they have been interpreted. One of the key organizations required to submit a report to the Sala IV was the Environment Ministry (MINAET), which filed a document to the court written by Environment Minister René Castro.

According to Michael Garcia, director of environmental and community affairs for Las Catalinas, Castro studied reports from  MINAET’s water issues office and the Tempisque Conservation Area and recommended judges “declare the claim placed by Roberto Faris Campbell without merit because all procedures are being performed legally as outlined in the report.”

The MINAET document was released after The Tico Times interviewed Campbell, but Berry said Las Catalinas’ response to Confraternidad’s allegations have been the same throughout the process: Las Catalinas believes the court’s investigation will show they have not engaged in improper activity, and government agencies will recommend the construction ban be thrown out, he said.

Building another dream

While the court continues to investigate, Berry said he is focused on development goals set by major shareholder and investor Charles Brewer, a U.S. real estate mogul from Atlanta, Georgia, who hopes to pioneer “new urbanism” in Costa Rica.

“Las Catalinas will be a town, where the different elements of life, such as houses, apartments, shops and workplaces, are together on walkable streets, rather than separated into separate pods,” Brewer told The Tico Times in 2010.

“One of the things I hope we will accomplish is to introduce a pattern of development that I think would serve Costa Rica wonderfully well, which is that of a compact, walkable town with lots of preserved nature surrounding it,” he added.

Brewer and his group of 25 investors plan to build 2,000 homes initially priced at $495,000-$995,000.

Although Brewer doesn’t expect his community-building goal to be fulfilled for decades, as the town develops, prices are expected drop to the $125,000 range (TT, April 16, 2010).

Six years after planning, zoning and building started, the evidence of what Las Catalinas could become is standing ready and open to the public, developers said. A wooden boardwalk runs parallel to the beach, lined by seven finished homes, four public plazas, Lola’s del Norte Restaurant, an outdoor gear and watersport shop as well as several playgrounds and lounge areas.

According to Berry, some of the most frequent visitors to Las Catalinas are families from Liberia, Santa Cruz and neighboring Potrero, who come to spend a day at the beach.

The town model based on new urbanism is a design movement Brewer has been actively involved with in the United States. One of the movement’s core principles is a sustainable development model that originated when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began to realize that a high-density, suburban model – with two-acre, side-by-side plots – was worse for the environment than a low-density plan, where development is concentrated in one area.

Developers vs. Environmentalists

As developers at Las Catalinas noted, creating a sustainable model is complex, and inevitable tensions arise between large-scale developers and environmental organizations in Costa Rica.

Concerns from environmental groups about the effect Las Catalinas would have on local ecosystems existed from the beginning of the project, but they appear to have changed from questions of plausibility to environmental integrity.

In 2010, Gadi Amit, president of Confraternidad Guanacasteca, told The Tico Times the idea behind Las Catalinas was “not ambitious, but unrealistic,” because Sugar Beach, just south of the Las Catalinas property, is crippled by an erratic and insufficient water supply.

“It will be very difficult for the development they have in mind to be supplied with all the resources promised. I’m sure the developers have the best intentions, but creating a project as big as this is almost always accompanied by problems,” he said.

“We’re only developing 20 percent of the land,” Berry countered, adding that, “the other 80 percent we’ve been actively reforesting for the last six years. We planted 5,000 trees, and of those, the average mortality rate is only 10 percent, even though we have forest fires.”

Berry said local forest fires have been controlled since Las Catalinas hired a trained fire brigade to help extinguish fires on the property.

The brigade also helps out neighboring towns including Potrero and Flamingo, he added.

“We really want to be a model of sustainability in Costa Rica,” Berry said. “We know building a town doesn’t happen overnight, and we’re committed to doing whatever needs to happen to see that vision become a reality.”

In the meantime, Berry extended an invitation for anyone interested to come and see the Las Catalinas project.

“If you don’t believe it, come see what we’re doing,” he said. “There’s no gate. You don’t need an invitation, you don’t need a reservation and you don’t need to pay. Come see it for yourself.”

Coastal Residents Shaken, but Grateful After Strong Quake

Originally Published in the Tico Times, Print Edition, Thursday, September 6, 2012. Click Here to Read Online.

By Suzanna Lourie | Special to The Tico Times

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – The powerful 7.6-magnitude earthquake that shook Costa Rica Wednesday morning caused panic, property destruction and collapsed buildings in areas surrounding the quake’s epicenter in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

Preliminary reports by the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (Ovsicori) said the 8:42 a.m. quake was centered in the Nicoya Peninsula, 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the provincial capital of Liberia.

In the Pacific coast beach town of Tamarindo, residents awoke to chaos as furniture shook violently and glass shattered from the shelves for what many say lasted up to 30 seconds.

“It was crazy how long it lasted. We heard a gust of wind and then everything started shaking,” said Chelsea Lisaius, who runs a local schooling program.

“We all ran outside and I just grabbed our youngest student [a 9-year-old] and pushed her against the wall until it was over. It was pretty terrifying, but we’re grateful we survived and the students are safe.”

Earthquake damages

Many restaurants and bars reported minor structural damage and thousands of dollars lost in expensive liquor bottles shattered on the floor.

No injuries were reported in Tamarindo and surrounding communities, but the Red Cross reported one person died in Costa Rica from a heart attack, and at least 20 were injured. Two people remain missing. The Red Cross retracted earlier statements that a second man had died at a construction site.

“We cannot confirm any deaths caused by trauma. [The Red Cross] only provided assistance to OBGYN patients and people suffering anxiety and high blood pressure,” Red Cross spokesman Freddy Roman said.

After the shaking stopped, panic ensued across the region. In Tamarindo, more than 200 residents and visiting tourists did the only thing they could think of: seek higher ground and gather at the top of the town’s main hill.

“Everyone I knew was there,” said Jon Phillips, a U.S. expat who owns a restaurant and bar in Tamarindo. “We didn’t have Internet or power, but people were saying there was a tsunami warning so everyone went to the lookout point.”

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a preliminary tsunami warning for Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua, but it was quickly canceled – a stroke of luck for a crowd of surfers in the water when the quake hit.

Paola Sánchez, 31, who is originally from San José, was out for a morning surf on Tamarindo Beach when she heard a deep rumble emanating from the ocean floor.

“It was so intense; it was a new sensation I’ve never felt before in my life,” she said. “I knew something was wrong.”

After being thrown violently in the waves and feeling as though she would be “swallowed by a hole in the sand,” Sánchez and other surfers were confused, but got out of the water without any major problems.

Had the quake been shallower, the outcome for Sánchez could have been much worse. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the event was fairly deep at 40 kilometers (25 miles) below the earth’s surface.

Besides causing widespread fear, the quake also took a toll on local businesses. Many of the tourist town’s restaurants and bars reported minor structural damage and thousands of dollars lost in expensive liquor bottles shattered on the floor.

“We won’t know how much we lost for a few days, but it looked pretty bad,” Phillips said of his third-floor location. “All the bottles had fallen; there was lots of broken glass and some damage to electronics from falling ceiling tiles.”

Still, no one is crying over spilled liquor – damage was minor compared to devastation being reported closer to the quake’s epicenter. In the Samara district, towns were temporarily evacuated. In the town of Hojancha, a few miles from the epicenter, city officials said the quake knocked down some houses and landslides blocked several roads.

“We know the damage is much worse in some places,” Phillips added. “Everything here can be replaced. We’re just thankful everyone is safe and wishing the best for everyone else out there.”

In the hours following the quake, several aftershocks were felt in town – Ovsicori reported more than 60 aftershocks between magnitudes 2 and 4 occurred as the day went on. As of 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Tamarindo appears to be out of any immediate danger, but locals are still feeling on edge with unconfirmed rumors of more powerful earthquakes and tsunamis circulating.

“You can’t predict these things,” said Sasha Karaliova, 27, who lives and works in Tamarindo. “You never think things like this are going to happen, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and natural disasters, you never think it will happen to you.”

Karaliova said the only thing to do was wait and make sure friends and family are safe in the aftermath. But while some people left town to head inland, Karaliova is staying close to home.

Weather reports for Wednesday night and Thursday indicate storms, but there are no current tsunami warnings in effect, although officials have advised of the possibility of strong aftershocks in the next couple of weeks.