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Environmentalists Find Opportunities In Baja California’s Real Estate Bust

The Great Recession halted many projects on the Baja Peninsula. Conservation groups used it to protect more open space.

Evening Edition

Above: The wild and wildlife-rich peninsula of Baja California has long lured fishermen, surfers and nature-lovers to its pristine coasts. But when real estate boomed in the U.S., it also boomed south of the border, in the form of beach-front high rises and luxury resorts. Now, the funding behind many coastal development projects has dried up. And that's caused some environmentalists to breath a sigh of relief. After a nine-day journey down the peninsula, KPBS Fronteras reporter Jill Replogle and KPBS video journalist Katie Euphrat bring us this story.

Aired 2/29/12 on KPBS News.

A U.S. real estate boom has echoed south of the border, but funding for many projects has dried up and environmentalists are breathing a sigh of relief.

Special Feature Baja After The Boom

Read more about development & conservation in Baja California.

SANTA ROSALILLITA, MX – This is a tiny fishing village on the Pacific coast, about 400 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. There’s not much going on here as night falls on a recent weekday evening — just a few dirt bikers roaring around, and surfers catching the day’s final waves.

But only five years ago, this town was bustling with construction.

Santa Rosalillita was slated as the first step in the Escalera Naútica, or Nautical Staircase — a string of marinas that the Mexican federal government planned to build along the coast of Baja California and the Sea of Cortez.

Now, this marina is a giant sandpit. The main, three-story building that was supposed to greet boaters with a restaurant and Internet service, sits empty, rusting in the salty breeze.

The failed Nautical Staircase project has become the poster child for over-ambitious development dreams in Baja California.

“It was planned with the expectation that the real estate was going to continue growing," said Saúl Alarcón, executive director of the Mexican conservation group, Terra Peninsular. "They said: 'Well, let’s put some marinas in key places because we’re developing the entire coast. So eventually we’ll have thousands of people with yachts coming to Baja California.'”

During the recent boom years, many Mexican developers, and Americans in search of a plot of paradise, invested in Baja California's miles and miles of unspoiled, breathtaking coastline. Now, many are saddled with half-finished condos and acres of remote land with no electricity or water.

The buildings at the marina at Santa Rosalillita at sunset: they are rusting away.
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Above: The buildings at the marina at Santa Rosalillita at sunset: they are rusting away.

But some people aren’t all that upset about the development freeze.

“Definitely the downturn of the economy has been a positive boon for (Baja California's) natural resources," said Serge Dedina, executive director of WiLDCOAST, based in Imperial Beach.

“When the Baja Boom was happening, it seemed like environmentalists were fighting all kinds of projects," Dedina said. "From a plethora of liquid natural gas terminals to marina development projects, high-rise development projects and mega-resorts."

A lot of that has come to a halt. And thanks to the slowdown, WiLDCOAST and other conservation groups have been able to buy up discounted coastal land from speculators who once hoped to make a fortune selling beachfront real estate. They are establishing conservation easements on private land, and working with the Mexican government to form new protected areas.

The view from the breakwater to the marina at Santa Rosalillita at sunset. The marina basin is full of sand, instead of water and boats.
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Above: The view from the breakwater to the marina at Santa Rosalillita at sunset. The marina basin is full of sand, instead of water and boats.

“So in places like San Ignacio Lagoon, Magdalena Bay, the corridor between Loreto and La Paz and in the central Pacific coast, we’ve been able to preserve some really world-class coastal biodiversity areas," Dedina said. "Areas where grey whales go, and where you see whale sharks. Real world class, Africa-style wildlife destinations. So that’s really exciting.”

About four hours north of Santa Rosalillita is San Quintín Bay, an internationally recognized wetlands area. Tens of thousands of migratory waterbirds hibernate here. Clams and oysters are abundant.

“It’s one of the last (coastal) wetlands in North America," said Alarcón from Terra Peninsular. "I’d say, 80 to 90 percent of the habitat is still in good shape."

The local government had hoped this fragile bay would also house a marina. A mega resort and golf course were also once on the drawing board. But now, Terra Peninsular is coordinating with the government to establish a Federal Biosphere Reserve on nearly 300,000 acres here. It’s also working with local farmers to establish land use plans and sustainable agricultural practices.

Bahía San Quintin, south of Ensenada. Environmentalists call it a victory in efforts to preserve open space in Baja California.
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Above: Bahía San Quintin, south of Ensenada. Environmentalists call it a victory in efforts to preserve open space in Baja California.

Of course, development brought much needed money into this region. And with that money gone, conservationists are hurting, too.

“I mean, non-profits too, depend on grants and donations to do their work," Alarcón said. "When the development pressure goes down, the money for conservation also goes down.”

Back in Santa Rosalillita, locals say the jobs and income promised by the marina could have been good for the town. Even though it’s not likely to ever be operational, the marina project did bring electricity and a paved road. And a few surfing tourists: the marina’s break wall created a nice new wave.

Now, local fishermen are brainstorming ideas for what to do with this sandy corral.

The failed marina project at Santa Rosalillita created a surf break at the mouth of the basin.
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Above: The failed marina project at Santa Rosalillita created a surf break at the mouth of the basin.

"Some kind of farm," mused Javier Maclish, a local fisherman. "It would be really special if we could do that kind of work there. For example, an abalone or fish farm. Why not? I think we have a very interesting place to do it.

Transform a failed marina into fish farm? Indeed, why not? Baja's isolated residents are used to making something out of what appears to be to others to be a waste.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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