State of the Beach/State Reports/PR/Beach Access

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In theory, Puerto Rico has enjoyed "Public Domain" access to beaches and waterways since Spain enacted the "1886 Law of Ports for the Island of Puerto Rico."

The 2009 updated CZM Program document provides more details on the historical development of beach access policies in Puerto Rico. It also describes a PRCZMP beach access policy that states:

"Public access to beaches. Development in front of the coast, be they public or private, should, in the measure in which it is practical, be designed to facilitate instead of obstructing access to the coast by the general public. It is recognized that the general wellbeing, on occasions, requires restriction of access (i.e. to areas of environmental crisis or endangered species or for public safety reasons). However, the de facto segregation of public beaches, as a result of development patterns, for the enjoyment of private landowners by preventing access by the general public is prohibited in Puerto Rico."

Another policy mentioned in the CZM Program document is:

"The PRPB, according to the dispositions included in its “Organic Law”, adopted the “Zoning regulation for the Coastal Zone and Access to Beaches and Coasts in Puerto Rico,” supra. Its purpose is to protect and guide the development of coastal lands according to their potential as well as provide access to Puerto Rico’s beaches and coasts. This regulation requires the provision of coast and beach access from new projects developed in the Maritime Zone. These accesses can be provided either through the project or bordering them and should observe a maximum separation of 800 meters in urban areas, if they are for vehicular access, and 400 meters for pedestrian accesses. In non-urban zoned areas, the separation will be 1,600 meters for vehicular access and 400 meters for pedestrian or any other access. According to the Regulation, all accesses must include correct signage with the name of the beach or the sector."

NOAA reported in their 2006 evaluation of Puerto Rico's coastal program:

[Regulations created in 1979 required developers] to retain a public accessway to the shore. For example, regulations currently require development projects to include a 20-meter setback as a public use easement. High-density development projects require an additional 30 meters of setback. However, RPA can waive the setback requirement for a variety of reasons that are not particularly transparent or well-understood. Thus, despite existing regulations, coastal development projects do not always include a public access component. Additionally, some development projects that retain actual physical access to the coast incorporate perceived barriers to access, such as gates or guards. A lack of open and clearly-designated public access deprives the public of their right to use the coast and may result in increased harm to natural resources as individuals look for alternative routes to the coast that may lead them through sensitive habitats. The relative ease with which developers are able to ignore public access requirements is a prime example of the need for improved enforcement described later in these findings.

The governor and the federal government may restrict access for public safety and national defense. Coastal developments prevent and block access, and threaten dozens of Puerto Rico's prime surf areas.[1]

The Autonomous Municipalities Act, passed in 1991, is changing Puerto Rico's land use planning process. The Act establishes a process whereby municipalities may assume planning and zoning authority from the Planning Board. Many of the 48 coastal municipalities are gradually gaining greater decision-making authority over land uses. NOAA has found that outreach to local governments is critical to successful coastal management, especially as more municipalities assume greater responsibility for their land use decisions. Public comments from coastal program partners and private land owners indicate the need for further implementation of land controls, including the use of the public domain, land use conflicts, and coordination of activities.

Regulations were passed on June 24, 1975 on access to beaches and coasts (Regulation núm. 17). These regulations were countermanded and incorporated into the new regulation of zonificación of Puerto Rico (Regulation of planning number 4 in June of 1987).

The fundamental purpose of these regulations is to obtain accessways to the coasts and beaches of the island, as well as to ensure the optimal use of such. These regulations declare that all people, including both residents and visitors to Puerto Rico have equality, with regard to enjoying the benefits of the coasts and particularly the beaches of Puerto Rico.

The new regulations empower the Department of Natural Resources to comment and require public beach accessways on all projects within the terrestrial marine zone. Access to beaches is mentioned in section 47:00 of the new regulations.

Site Inventory

According to Pogue P. and Lee V., 1999. "Providing Public Access to the Shore: The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs," Coastal Management 27:219-237, the amount of publicly owned coastal land in Puerto Rico is unknown.

This same document identifies 204 public access sites in Puerto Rico. This corresponds to about one public access site for every 3.5 miles of shoreline.

The 2009 updated CZM Program document states that 41% of the coastline is beaches. There are 231 identified beaches, located in 42 of the 44 coastal municipalities. Of these, 97 have been classified as accessible or swimmable beaches.

In 2014, Puerto Rico CZM developed a Master Plan for Public Beach Access in Puerto Rico.

PRCMP has hired a full-time GIS Specialist. At the time of NOAA's site visit in June 2005, the GIS Specialist was working on a variety of initiatives, including:

  • Reviewing historic land cover change;
  • Coastal monitoring;
  • Creating a public access signage inventory and database of access facilities;
  • Locating traditional accessways through aerial photographs;
  • Collaborating on coral reef zoning;
  • Assisting with natural reserve management; and
  • Identifying critical areas for wetland management

The Coastal Zone Management Program website provides information on beach access. The beach access link leads to an inventory of swimming beaches, a Beach Access Guide and a series of links to very nice color brochures for 10 beaches.

PRCMP allocated considerable staff time and resources to public access projects during the latest NOAA review period. PRCMP’s public access program began with an inventory of coastal access sites, an assessment of coastal activities and recreational uses, and strategies to improve access. The program completed coastal access inventories for municipalities along Puerto Rico’s western coast, and staff were developing a similar inventory for the northern coast at the time of the site visit (June 2005). PRCMP also published a coastal access brochure for each segment of the coast as its inventory was completed, and the DNER Secretary made public announcements on television and in newspapers about the availability of the brochures. The popular brochures have been distributed throughout coastal municipalities in local government buildings, libraries and natural reserves. NOAA OCRM encouraged PRCMP to consider developing an interactive public access guide online.

In addition to public access inventories, PRCMP’s public access program also emphasized improving signage during the review period. In the past, public access signs in Puerto Rico were not standardized. Primarily text-based signs were created in a variety of materials, shapes and designs. During the previous review period, PRCMP implemented a comprehensive public access sign program to: (1) compile a list of features that should be identified on access signs; (2) use standardized symbols and the PRCMP logo; and (3) develop siting guidelines for sign placement. The program successfully created a standardized sign system that uses easily recognizable international symbols for recreational coastal activities. The signs also identify potential risks such as strong currents, high wave energy and coastal storms. During the current review period, PRCMP designed and installed signs for Pinones, Culebra, Boqueron, Mona Island, Caja de Muertos Island, Cordillera and Espiritu Santo, Aguirre Forest and Vieques.

PRCMP also participated in projects that improve public access while protecting critical resources. For example, staff initiated the planning and construction of wooden dune walkovers in Pinones Natural Reserve. The reserve’s beach is a very popular surfing spot, and people trampled sand dunes in a number of places by repeatedly crossing over them to access the beach. PRCMP staff proposed dune walkovers as a solution, and they have been very successful. Beachgoers now use the walkovers instead of walking on the dunes, which have become reestablished under the walkovers.

Previously, public access projects such as boardwalks, dune restoration and other beach access projects for surfing beaches such as Aviones, Chatarra and Social Place (Tocones) have been completed.

Despite the above information from NOAA's latest review of Puerto Rico's coastal program, there now (mid-2009) appear to be very few beach access signs. In many locations the narrow alleys built for beach access have been closed down with gates. Additionally, the local US Federal Court decided in favor of beach access closings in a recent case.

There are a number of Puerto Rico travel Websites with some information on beach access locations. Actually, the Puerto Rico surfing Websites (see Surfing Areas section) are a great source of information on beach access locations in Puerto Rico.

Beach Attendance Records

No information was found on beach attendance in Puerto Rico.

Economic Evaluation of Beaches

Dr. Linwood Pendleton, Assistant Professor of International Relations and Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California (later with Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions) prepared a report titled A Preliminary Study of the Value of Coastal Tourism in Rincon, Puerto Rico in March 2002. Dr. Pendleton noted that in the year 2000, over 3 million tourists visited Puerto Rico, spending approximately $2.4 billion. In the town of Rincon, Dr. Pendleton estimates that more than 60% of the formal workplace, 56% of retail earnings and more than 40% of the community's income are generated by coastal tourism. He states "should the quality of the coastal and ocean resources of the area become impaired, it is likely that a large portion of Rincon's economy will be lost." Dr. Pendleton estimates that the total direct and indirect value generated by coastal tourists that is at risk is greater than $51.9 million per year.

Clearly, with tourism being such a vital component of the island's economy, beaches are valuable assets.

The 2009 update of the CZM Program planning document contains a discussion of the economic impact of the coastal zone.

NOAA's Office for Coastal Management (OCM) has written a discussion of the recreational value of beaches, in the context of beach fill projects. In 2009 OCM released Introduction to Economics for Coastal Managers, a basic introduction to economic ideas and methods that can be applied to coastal resource management. The economic concepts provided in this introduction are illustrated through several case studies. Other OCM/Digital Coast publications can be found here.

The following two websites provide information on the economic value of coasts and the ocean throughout the country.

The National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP) provides a full range of the most current economic and socio-economic information available on changes and trends along the U.S. coast and in coastal waters. You can download data on jobs and GDP associated with specific types of coastal activities for each coastal state. You also can download data on commercial fishing and landings. The NOEP made public their fully updated Non-Market Valuation website in September 2008. The largest database in the world of studies documenting the environmental and recreational values of ocean resources, the website now includes 1) an updated methodologies section, 2) frequently asked questions, 3) examples of how Non-Market valuation influences public policy, and 4) an expanded table summarizing valuation estimates from across the United States. In 2014 NOEP released an updated State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2014, which points out that there is an imbalance between the economic importance of coasts and coastal oceans and the federal support for stewardship of these resources. According to the report, coastal states supply over 81 percent of American jobs and contribute $13 trillion to the economy, or 84 percent of GDP. More on this here. The National Ocean Economics Program previously released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2009, which presents time-series data compiled over the past 10 years that track economic activities, demographics, natural resource production, non-market values, and federal expenditures in the U.S. coastal zone on land and water. The report states that coastal states account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy. The most recent report released by NOEP is the State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2016. The Center for the Blue Economy (CBE) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey now houses the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP).

The website of Restore America's Estuaries has a report The Economic and Market Value of Coasts and Estuaries: What's At Stake?. According to the report, U.S. coasts and estuaries that have been protected and managed in a sustainable way are worth billions. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive and support large sectors of the national economy. The report focuses on aspects of coasts and estuaries that are most dependent on ecologically healthy conditions. The authors also examined a growing body of research that reveals the economic consequences of environmental change in coastal and estuary ecosystems.

A report A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone was published in December 2010. This report was prepared by ERG for NOAA's Coastal Services Center. The report evaluated different methods and approaches to measure human uses of the coastal and marine environment. The uses were divided into 1) military and industrial uses, 2) consumptive uses (e.g., fishing) and 3) non-consumptive activities (e.g., swimming, surfing, kayaking).

The economic value of beaches can increase or decrease due to a number of factors, including beach width; the presence or absence of amenities such as parking, restrooms or lifeguard services; the suitability of the beach for activities such as surfing or swimming; and the presence or absence of pollution and beach litter. In June 2014 NOAA published an infographic on the high cost of marine debris based on the report Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California, which was prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for NOAA's Marine Debris Division. It found that having debris on the beach and good water quality are the leading factors in deciding which beach residents visit. Reducing marine debris by even 25 percent at beaches in and near Orange County, California, could save residents approximately $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Beach characteristics were collected for 31 popular Southern California public beaches from San Onofre Beach to Zuma Beach. Orange County residents were also surveyed on their recreation habits, including how many day trips they took to the beach from June - August 2013, where they went, how much it cost them, and which beach characteristics are important to them. The results provided in an estimate if how much Orange County residents would potentially benefit, including how often they visit beaches and how much they would save in travel costs, over a summer season by reducing marine debris at some or all of these 31 beaches. The study focused on Orange County because of the number and variety of beaches, their importance to permanent residents, ease of access, and likelihood that marine debris would be present. Researchers believe that, given the results, the study could be modified for assessing similar coastal communities in the United States.

For additional general discussion of the economic impacts of beaches, please see the article Economic Impact of Beaches.

Perception of Supply and Demand

The 2009 updated CZM Program document contains a discussion several issues related to beach access and obstacles which impede optimum optimum enjoyment of recreational facilities at the beach. These include legal barriers, lack of parking, lack of facilities, and beach litter. Possible ways to address each of these issues is then discussed.

The latest evaluation of Puerto Rico's Coastal Program by NOAA/OCRM noted:

Despite existing regulations, coastal development projects do not always include a public access component. Additionally, some development projects that retain actual physical access to the coast incorporate perceived barriers to access, such as gates or guards. A lack of open and clearly-designated public access deprives the public of their right to use the coast and may result in increased harm to natural resources as individuals look for alternative routes to the coast that may lead them through sensitive habitats. The relative ease with which developers are able to ignore public access requirements is a prime example of the need for improved enforcement. OCRM strongly encourages PRCMP to work with all relevant commonwealth agencies to improve enforcement of public access requirements for development projects, including the removal of perceived barriers to access.

The trend toward privatization of beaches and blocking free public access to beaches has apparently become more of a problem following the November 2008 elections. Attempts by the Department of Natural Resources' staff to expedite construction permits has tended to exacerbate these problems. And the Legislature is reportedly trying to pass a new law that would allow the construction of new infrastructure anywhere in the island, regardless of environmental impact.

Public Education Program

The CZMA 2001 Section 312 Evaluation commends Puerto Rico for its leadership role in community education and outreach — and not just in the area of beach access. Some of the highlights include talks to K-12 students and science fairs, as well as workshops on natural resource protection, natural reserves, and coral reefs. The CZMA 2001 Section 312 Evaluation does note the need to promote, in communication to the public, their rights to participate in the permit process.

Contact Info

Aurelio Mercado-Irizarry
Director, Coastal Hazards Center of UPRM
Professor (Physical Oceanography) - Department of Marine Sciences
Coastal Hazards Specialist - Sea Grant Program
Physics, Geology and Marine Sciences Building; F-420
University of Puerto Rico
P.O. Box 9013
Mayaguez, P.R. 00681-9013
(787) 265-5461

Manuel (Manolo) Valdés Pizzini
(787) 538-1466

Ruperto Chaparro
Puerto Rico Sea Grant


  1. Daniel Whiting, Puerto Rico Surfrider Chapter, written correspondence. April 2, 2001.

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