So you’ve found your lot in paradise and are ready to buy it and build your dream vacation villa. Great. Now stop!! Too often, people blinded by their dreams, go right ahead and buy a lot, only to find out later, what they really want to build, they can’t because the local low environmental impact building regulations don’t allow it. Don’t let the local Realtor, or the owner tell you what can be built, talk to an approved environmental engineer first in order to really know, before you buy, what you can build on the property and the unique issues it might face. There are several environmental engineers in the area that can find what the impact regulations allow for specific locations. Just because the owner or Realtor tell you that you can build what you want on the property, do not offer until you are sure. Surprises are for birthdays, not real estate transactions.
Most assume because the neighbor up the road built a four bedroom house, they can too. Many, many variables from parcel to parcel, can affect what, and specifically, the size of what, can be built. If the neighbor’s lot includes more area, even if much of it is non-build-able wetland, it can be counted toward building a bigger house. Some owners will buy a neighbor’s un-used wetland, just to add to their property, allowing for a larger home to be built on what looks like a small lot. You never know. Some areas have small pockets, because of a unique feature, like distance from a lagoon being short, making that area not subject to the general bedroom density type regulation. These special lots are given building sizes allowed on the percentage of the lot “impacted” and not by bedroom-to-parcel size. The point is that again, you never know from lot to lot, what actual size structure you can build, until a environmental engineer has done a preliminary house/lot evaluation. That is not a terribly hard task and worth the hundred bucks or so most engineers might charge for a consult.
To understand their process, you must first know that the entire coastline, from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, all the way to Xcalak, the end of the road for Mexico’s Caribbean coast, has been “zoned” for its usable capacity. A government agency, SEMERNAT, writes the regulations we develop under here, and they in the late 90’s re-wrote this entire area to control problems from over density, balancing the area’s realistic carrying capacity, with the local tourism industry, and the natural environment that industry relies on. The result is that in the southern portion of the state, the regulations for development tend to be lower density, with more long term sustainability. The only high volume tourism the area’s density regulations allow for, is short stay, containable impact cruise ship tourist. A “containment city”, the downtown and port area, with limited automobile traffic, curbed drainage and low volume sewage treatment plants, provides an area acceptable for the high volume, eco-light tourism our entire local economy is based on. The rest of the area, about 70 miles of coastal area, is regulated for even lower density and impact, and where most residential vacation homes are built.
Once you leave the town, a property’s allowable density is set mainly by the number of bedrooms to the parcel’s size. Most areas have a density-to-hectare ratio that determines the size of dwelling that can be built on any given parcel. For example, an area that has a 10 bedroom per hectare regulation, allows just that. (a hectare is about 2 1/2 acres) A half hectare would only allow 5 bedrooms and so on. A very typical size lot here is in the 20-30 meters of oceanfront, by an undermined amount of depth. An average depth might be around 100 meters and for this example, it keeps the math simple. If your lot is 20 meters by 100, it is a total of 2,000 sq meters, or 2/10ths of a hector. If the density is 10 to 1, then you would be allowed 2 bedrooms on that parcel. A 20 bedrooms to hectare rating would allow for 4 bedrooms. There are other variables that can affect that number, but by far the largest is the size of the lot, to the pre-set bedroom density rate.
A parcel’s legal description in most areas is done by the properties GPS coordinates. That legal description, those coordinates, should be on both your purchase contract, and your deed. Your proposed property can easily be identified, via those coordinates, by someone with access to the SEMERNAT density regs that apply specifically to that location, and only certified professionals have that access. Those regs have all the other rules and variables that can go beyond the bedrooms per hectare number and have the details you need to know.
For example, details that will affect the type of septic permitted, and how that can fit into the equation. The regs, because they address bedrooms, also allow for some room in how rooms are labeled with regard to permitting. A “study” for example, might be allowed in addition to the number of bedrooms, so understanding that via a person who can also eventually certify your house as compliant, is a good part of due diligence. Most of the time, potential buyers do not have house plans done when they buy the lot, but telling the engineer basic information, like the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and any special amenities, like a caretaker’s casita, a shop or swimming pool, will be enough information to accurately know your property’s building capacity. All the variables affect something, and that something, will affect the overall impact equation.
Also, be aware. In terms of density and construction, “organic” construction, or palapa style construction, is much less rigorous in what is permitted. There is still the same emphasis on septic, as well as the same water storage and solar electric realities, but what can be actually built is much more permissible. The big difference is you can’t use block and concrete. Again, each lot still has enough unique impact variables that even for organic construction, it is best to understand the details before you offer.
So when you find the dream lot, don’t stop when it comes to buying. Just stop long enough to do your homework. Understand your lot’s carrying capacity before you buy it and if you can’t build what you thought, either change what your are building, or get another lot. Both easier to do before you buy, than after.