Lax Regulations Mean Vulnerable Coastal Areas Aren’t Protected

CONCON – Vacation season is over for most Chileans, which means second homes along the coast will be deserted until Easter weekend. Real estate developments have mushroomed in recent years, and Chile’s lax regulations have enabled property developers to destroy forests, wetlands, and anything else that stands in their way.

The scenic Concón sand dunes in the Valparaíso region were declared a natural sanctuary in 1993 and are a must-see for visitors. Nonetheless, rapid development has translated into several high-rise buildings, not only blocking the view, but also causing irreparable damage to the unique microclimate, flora, and fauna of the area.

Initially, 123 acres were protected in 1993, but in less than a year, this was reduced to a mere 30. The remaining plot was given to real estate developer Reconsa. Five acres of what is left of the sanctuary lies on the border with the Viña del Mar district, and local authorities weren’t aware of this when they gave developer Vimac permission to build two high-rise buildings on the dunes, ignoring Chilean environmental laws that require impact studies to be carried out when construction work is to take place next to protected nature sites. Lawsuits were filed but ultimately dismissed, meaning the projects went ahead regardless of their impact on the environment.

Properties on the Concon dunes. Picture by Federico Maiz.

Further north in the Valparaíso region, the Maratué development in Puchuncaví comprises 14,180 properties to be built over a 45-year period, at a rate of 315 houses per year in the first 25 years. The Quirilluca cliffs, the area where construction is taking place, is an important habitat for many native species of the region, including the marine otter, the northern acorn tree, and the Peruvian booby. To mitigate the environmental consequences of such a large-scale project, Maratué initially offered a 494-acre conservation area, but the Environmental Evaluation System asked the developer to refrain from this commitment as the proposal may not be viable in the future.

Lax Regulations

Current law in Chile establishes two methods to measure the impact of construction projects: an environmental impact declaration or an environmental impact study. The former is a simple declaration in which the developer explains why the project will not have a significant impact on the environment, while the latter is used when plans will have a significant impact and can take up to two years, time in which the executor must find ways to mitigate, recover, or preserve the affected area.

The government entity that oversees these studies and determines which methodology is applied, the Environmental Impact Evaluation Service, has allowed over 90 percent of projects across the country to use the simpler environmental impact declaration. As a practical matter this means that the only way to challenge a development is through a lawsuit. Even then, only some succeed in obtaining an order for an environmental impact study, and, when they do, the studies can still fall short because current environmental legislation only requires consideration of the impact of a project on an individual basis and not cumulatively.

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Real estate developers also take advantage of regulatory plans, especially in smaller districts where their guidelines are usually outdated. Such is the case for Horcón, also in the Valparaíso region, where their urban development plan dates back to 1988 and hasn’t had any major amendments since. The Maratué project is in the Horcón area.

As local governments update their regulatory plans, real estate developers have been lobbying councils to favor them. In 2011, El Mostrador reported that the Supreme Court validated the proposed changes to Santiago’s La Reina municipal regulatory plan, allowing houses to be built near the San Ramón fault, and in a native forest area, despite communities and some local government leaders questioning the speediness of the process.

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