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Planning and zoning in Puerto?

by Sheila Clarke
June 2014
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Unfortunately, what little planning and zoning exists in this part of the world is subject to chicanery. A case in point and cautionary tale: 22 years ago this month I met with the agente municipal ("mayor") of Puerto Escondido and the head of Public Works. Coming from a long history in environmental activism and planning and zoning which permitted directed growth that took into account soil suitability, schools, water, roads and other issues, I wanted to know if there were any land use regulations here. I was considering buying a lot and building a home.

The "mayor" and the public works jefe were enthusiastic. They showed me beautifully drawn plans, colorful maps and the booklet of zoning regulations for the area I was considering. I was impressed. They explained that I could not under any circumstances construct a building any higher than three floors plus a palapa owing to the fact that Puerto Escondido, indeed the entire coast, lies in a seismic zone. They also assured me that the lot I wanted to buy was in a residential zone. I didn't need to fear that I’d wake up one morning and find a restaurant or disco next door. Wow! Great! I bought the lot and built my home.

As time went by I saw that the small town I discovered in 1992 with about 8500 inhabitants was growing like Topsy and that homes were often next to businesses. I figured that those areas were probably not protected under the plan I was shown. More years passed and I noticed that certain housing areas, specifically the Jones' trailer park development, and later, Cumaná and others, had strict building codes and covenants. Good idea. With the passing of even more years, buildings began to appear around town which clearly violated the three floors + palapa regulation. I chalked that off to political influence and pay-offs and wondered what would happen if another 7.3 quake, like the one we had in the late 90s, were to strike again. There was clearly nothing I could, should or would do about it.

Then, suddenly, it was happening in my part of town. Help! What to do? Inspectors from the Public Works (Obras Pú'blicas) department investigated. Much shaking of heads. No, no. Tsk. Tsk. Four floors, of course not. People from this colonia, Sector Hidalgo, wrote letters and e-mails and signed a petition. Public Works stopped the construction. Yea for the good guys! It was discovered that even the third floor of the building in question was built without a permit. No. No. Tsk. Tsk. The owners were given the time necessary to prove they had a foundation strong enough to support their three stories since their original building permit was for a two story structure. No such study existed. Okay, then. They would have to pay a fine and take down the wall of the fourth floor they were constructing. If the owners didn’t dismantle the wall, the municipality would do it for them. Successive dates were set to take down the wall. Months dragged on. The Public Works people just needed one more signature from San Pedro. Yes, just one more signature to authorize the taking down of the wall. But still, the process seemed to be working. Hurrah! A bureaucratic process was actually working. Yea for the good guys!

Still more months dragged on. The wall was still there. Expert architects in Oaxaca wrote that a strong quake could topple the wall. Protección Civil wrote that foundation studies urgently needed to be done. Oops! Elections! Change of government! Change of Public Works employees! Couldn’t find the case file. Oops. Couldn’t find the paperwork. Oops. Copies were supplied. Meetings were held. Inspectors inspected...again. And then suddenly, work on the fourth floor began anew. Oh, no! What of the process? What of the building codes? Oops. Friends doing the “inspecting”. Friends granting a building permit--for a “concrete palapa”. But, but, but the owner had been advertising on the Internet for more than a year that coming soon there would be a fabulous forth floor luxury penthouse! Public Works had copies of the ads. So what? “Planning and zoning restrictions just impede the development of Puerto Escondido,” said the influential political appointee overseeing the case----coincidently the same friend who issued the 4th floor building permit. Oops.

The beautiful maps and booklets delineating zoning and restrictions I was shown in 1992 have gone missing. Oops. Seven different local governments have come and gone. So what to do? Sue? No. The same influence would be brought to bear, this time on local judges infamous for their appreciation of “cooperation”.

All this, which lasted a year, creates a sense of impotence, a sadness that the process didn’t work, after all, and the reinforcement of the fact that while corruption exists in all countries, in some, as in Mexico, there are virtually no consequences for corruption.

So what happened? Who knows exactly? Only the Shadow and those who benefitted know, and they ain’ tellin’. The rest of us are left to shake our heads. As to the question of what to do, it’s best to concentrate on the beautiful views, the music, the fresh fish, fruit trees, students, friends, and to be thankful for the majority of Mexicans who are as offended as we all are when we witness the shenanigans of their leaders.

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