The environmental misfortune in the Bahia Jobos Reserve in Salinas, without a doubt, is reason for indignation, consternation, and action. However, it is important to point out that this is not an isolated case, and that reflection should be deeper since Salinas is a sad reflection of informal constructions, which make up 55% of all construction on the island.
Although it has merits highlighting the runover of the estuary in approximately 20 acres of land, it must be understood that there are 2.3 million acres on the entire island. Of these, it is alarming that nearly 205,000 correspond to informal constructions and 195,000 to formal constructions, developments, or urban areas. If we aspire to a better environment and surroundings, we must be more judicious and pragmatic with the 1.9 million acres on the island that have not yet been impacted.
It is curious that no one understands how in Jobos Bay services are provided to illegal constructions when historically, state and municipal governments have consented to this practice throughout the island. Cases of informal constructions cover the Island, from the coast to the mountains, in residences built block by block by their owners without plans, permits or inspection, and even businesses that we like to frequent operate illegally on the shoulders of the roads and even in structures on the seashore. The famous "ay bendito" has not only looked to the side in Jobos Bay, but on the entire island.
Those whose wishes for housing or recreation are not met by formal development, chose the risk of asking for forgiveness because they feel that obtaining permits is a difficult task, expensive and almost impossible. Meanwhile, the formal developments and constructions that depend on permits for our projects to be financeable and insurable, some take years and others are never approved.
The best example of the failure of the planning and permit system, and its damage to the environment, is the fact that 54% of the island's population does not have a sanitary sewer system. Worse still, studies indicate that 90% of that population has inadequate septic tanks. As a result, 99% of the tests carried out on the water in our reservoirs and over 60% of the coastal and spa waters do not meet the water quality criteria, especially for fecal coliforms.
For those of us who have spent years navigating the tortuous planning and permitting process on the Island, it is obvious that there are anti-development visions and forces, of government directions and with little respect for the right to use and enjoy private property. This vision permeates multiple laws and regulations, including the Land Use Plan. The timidity of our rulers and the lack of a firm public policy for economic development, articulated and based on science, not on electoral fears or on social media, permeates even the desks of the officials responsible for the evaluation and granting of permits. This ambivalence of our leaders often causes officials to shake their hands when a formal development project seeks to meet the demand for housing, commercial or recreational, even complying with all the excess laws and regulations.
Experience tells us that while our politicians and the current planning and permitting system make it difficult to formally develop in compliance with basic building codes and safety regulations, people seek to attend to their needs, their happiness and their desires, even if they are outside of the law, their safety and the protection or basic mitigations to the environment.
Continuing to plan for the stands, at the margin of economic realities, the market forces, and the global competition, harms Puerto Rico, its environment, and its people. We must be honest and recognize that the current legal and regulatory framework, characterized by marked inherence and government intervention, has not served to protect the environment or manage to speed up permits and establish an economic solidity that allows us to promote the needs and aspirations of our people. The times require a radically different model from the current one and achieving it requires greater common sense and will from our politicians.
This piece originally appeared in El Vocero
Rafael Rojo is former president of the Puerto Rico Builders Association. He currently serves as the President and CEO of VRM Companies, a leading company in real estate development and community improvement capabilities.