By Angela Howe, ESQ, Managing Attorney, Surfrider Foundation
It’s easier to stand up on a wave in Rincon, Puerto Rico, than it is to obtain standing in court. According to the Puerto Rican Supreme Court’s March 17, 2010 decision (Fundacion Surfrider, Inc v. Administracion Reglamentos y Permisos, CC-2005-732) on the legality of the Marino de los Suenos development that denied Surfrider Foundation standing in the case to challenge the high density development that will have dramatic effects on the character of the neighborhood and water disbursement in the region.
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Surfrider challenged the Administration of Rules and Permitting (APRE) decision that granted a zoning change for high density development in a low-density zoned area, giving the ARPE precedent right to allow rampant high density development without employing the Planning Commission as the appropriate body for these decisions.
Surfrider was present and vocal during the administrative agency decision, and then took our grievance to court in 2005. The issue went up to the Appeals Court and then the Supreme Court in Puerto Rico. The Supreme Court wrote a strong opinion against Surfrider’s standing, requiring burdensome conditions to constitute legitimacy as a Plaintiff on this action. The decision sets poor precedent for future environmental organizations who would like to obtain standing to fight poor development decisions in Puerto Rico.
In general, the Court found that Surfrider and named co-plaintiff Leon Richter’s interest were not sufficiently stated to show an intimate connection between the action and the organization’s “adverse interests.” Specifically, the majority wrote that because Senor Richter only included a PO Box address and not his particular home address, they could not tell how close in proximity he was to the new development and how much it would disturb the characteristics of the neighborhood. The majority also requested more data to substantiate allegations on how this will affect the water distribution and intensity in the area. They called the presented information “speculative and conclusory.” As for Surfrider Foundation’s standing, the majority noted that Surfrider functions to protect the welfare of oceans and beach access. But they reasoned that “this project is not even contiguous with the beach and will not impede access” and that the effects of the development are not sufficient to show a particularized interest in judicial right to review.
According to the dissent by three justices, Surfrider Foundation did demonstrate that it was in the interest of the organization and the organization’s individual members to work in the interest of conservation in the area. The dissent recognized that conservation is intimately related to planning decisions.
Furthermore, the dissent noted that even though Senor Richter did not have his specific address entered into the case, no one had ever doubted whether he resided as a neighbor to the proposed project. After all, how close does he have to be to allege the traffic concerns, affect on the local neighborhood and water usage concerns. The dissent noted that “there is no reason to doubt that he is truly a neighbor in the community and accurately described the public view.”
At least the dissenters recognized that Surfrider Foundation has been present in the local community to help to protect and preserve coastal resources in the area for over a decade.
As the dissenting opinion author Fiol Matta quoted in the local newspaper, “today’s decision was a hard blow against citizens working for the environment.”