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Squatter Rights and Inalienable Property in the Public Domain

On this occasion, we are going to address in a brief manner a topic that tends to be somewhat technical in the Civil Law field. A property or real estate can be acquired in many different

Squatter Rights and Inalienable Property in the Public Domain

On this occasion, we are going to address in a brief manner a topic that tends to be somewhat technical in the Civil Law field.

A property or real estate can be acquired in many different ways through Costa Rican law. Perhaps the ones that come to mind first are: plain and simple purchase, donation or inheritance, among others. Also, squatters (meaning those that do not own, rent or have any kind of legal permission to possess or use a property) may have acquired rights, depending on certain circumstances, of course. This specific type of acquisition happens through what is known under Costa Rican law as “usucapion.”

Let’s say you happen to be in Costa Rica and you find a piece of land that seems to be uninhabited (some prior certainty is required for that purpose). Then, you decide to start possessing this land in a public and peaceful manner throughout a given period of time (10 years, to be precise), acting as if you were its true, formal owner. If these requirements are duly met you, as a squatter, have accomplished the acquisition of that land through the “usucapion” (or “positive prescription”); all you would have to do then is to resort to a court and ask to get an ownership title of said land.

On this occasion, I have deemed it appropriate to link this topic to a particular category of property: the inalienable property that is in the public domain and the specific case of the maritime terrestrial zone (known around here as “zona marítimo terrestre”).

First of, and according to several judicial precedents from our courts, the so called “public domain” is made up of goods or properties that aim (through the express will of the legislator) to serve a given community, that is, a public interest. A property that is under the public domain does not belong to an individual; it is destined for public use and subdued to a special regime which excludes it from the market.

Some of the usual characteristics of these properties are that they are inalienable, not susceptible to seizure or foreclosure and are imprescriptible (meaning that the State does not lose them because of the simple passing of time and cannot be acquired through the aforementioned process by a squatter).

Part of the maritime terrestrial zone is a zone of public domain. This zone is basically a 200 meters-wide strip which is calculated in a linear manner starting from the point at which the sea touches land during high tide. The first 50 meters of that strip are deemed to be “public zone” and usually include crags, islets and other marine formations that stand above sea level. The remaining 150 meters constitute the “restricted zone,” a zone that may be subject to some sort of “appropriation” from individuals through the issuance of authorizations from the respective municipality known as “concessions.” The municipalities in general, however, have not done a good job of looking over this zone, since there has been a tendency to allow private individuals to establish their own regulatory plans over the area.

So, it is a zone that holds a high value due to its biodiversity, since the zone constitutes a habitat in which marine life multiplies, and it’s also a refuge or shelter for many species of flora and fauna. It is a natural barrier against natural disasters like storms, and it comprises beaches, wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs and such.

As a result, this zone has been considered a part of the State for a very long time. However, it’s for those exact same reasons that it has been a center of conflict since it attracts appropriation attempts from individuals that want to take advantage of the zone’s undeniable benefits and quality.

Having reached this point, the question is: can a squatter attempt to acquire a piece of land in such a zone?

Historically, and in spite of having been considered a part of the public domain, certain laws have been issued in the past that have introduced certain exceptions when it comes to the appropriation of territories included in this zone. Another example could suffice here as well: Jacó or Quepos. Those are whole cities that are actually located by the coast. Same thing happens with the port located in Caldera or piers that can be found in other areas. There have been two cases in recent years that have received a great deal of attention since they involved the formal registration of an appropriation in the restricted area before the National Public Registry: one in Cabuyal Beach and the other in Manzanillo beach. Both of them had to be taken into a judicial court after suspicion of negligence from the respective municipalities arose.

So, this demonstrates that the public domain factor is not that strict when it comes to the maritime terrestrial zone, since there are certain exceptions that are backed up by a special regulation. It is reasonable to conclude that the possibilities to occupy a piece of land in the zone are previously established in the law. However, the aforementioned concession just grants a right of use, not an actual title of ownership, thus the municipality is entitled to withdraw that authorization if it comes into conflict with public interest.

In conclusion, it is difficult to accept that a squatter could claim the acquisition of a property in a zone with such characteristics (as much as it would be undeniably nice to acquire a property with an ocean view). The only possible way that could be possible is if the squatter actually fulfills all the requirements that the Civil law establishes before a particular zone is declared part of the public domain.



Attorney with experience on Real Estate, Real Estate planning, and notary affairs. Has focused on the branch of Civil Law known as ius in re or rights over property. Has experience also in non-contentious procedures and arranging reports on legal affairs in general

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  • Marlene Paul September 24, 2021

    If a home owner wants to pay a person to live in the house for a salary weekly, just to keep the house occupied, could there be a squatter issue? the owner is in the USA.

    • Stacey Jennings September 26, 2021

      Well I suspect there is always that chance if you don’t know or trust the person. It is always best to use someone very trusted