Governor’s Order to Remove Structures in the Maritime Terrestrial Zone Is Ignored

The case of several properties on the Arecibo coast is an example of what is happening in other areas of Puerto Rico, but neither the Municipality nor the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA, in Spanish) act, while construction is allowed in the area affected by erosion.

December 5, 2023

Photo by Jorge A. Ramírez Portela | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Coastline of the Islote neighborhood, in Arecibo.

The enjoyment of the privileged view of the Atlantic Ocean that Carmen Delia Serrano De Jesús’s house had in the Islote neighborhood in Arecibo ended when Hurricane María destroyed her home’s roof, which is in the Maritime Terrestrial Zone (ZMT, in Spanish).

It was a property that the 71-year-old woman had kept for decades, although it is located in an area of public domain. Today the house is repaired, but she doesn’t live there, as she was forced to abandon it when the Family Department (DF, in Spanish) assumed guardianship of the elderly woman. After a stay in a center for the elderly in Lares, Serrano De Jesús died at the Pavía Hospital in Arecibo on October 29, 2022.

Serrano De Jesús had not had control of her property since 2017. The doctor who treated her, Roberto Abreu Valentín, took possession of her home. Abreu Valentín is one of five siblings who, like his mother Irma Valentín Serrano, manage businesses or have acquired properties in the oceanfront Islote neighborhood to convert them mostly into short-term rental businesses.

This is the house where Carmen Delia Serrano De Jesús lived, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, in Arecibo.
Courtesy photo

Little by little, this family illegally appropriated structures — many disused — on the maritime-terrestrial area in Islote. They have had repairs and construction done, including terraces and pools so close to the sea that the waves hit them. All this has been going on in front of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources’ (DRNA, in Spanish) rangers, who have an office a few steps away from the houses, and although Governor Pedro Pierluisi signed Executive Order 2023-09 seven months ago that requires the DRNA to collaborate with the Infrastructure Financing Authority to evaluate and implement the removal and demolition of abandoned structures in the coastal areas.

The area where the Abreu Valentín family operates their short-term rental businesses is classified as a Scenic Route (RE), which seeks to keep these spaces free of construction, to ensure visual enjoyment and public access to the ocean.

“About 55 properties were identified that are too far into the sea, many of which are abandoned and some that can be considered public nuisances. The designation of these segments with the RE rating will help avoid the proliferation of structures in this maritime-terrestrial zone (ZMT), also minimizing the risks to property and life by locating livable structures so close to the sea,” according to an explanatory memorandum issued by the Puerto Rico Planning Board and the Puerto Rico Tourism Company more than a decade ago.

Swimming pools have even been built in some of the structures.
Photo by Jorge A. Ramírez Portela | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo 

The Municipality of Arecibo has not accounted for or taken possession of the disused structures on the Arecibo coast as mandated by the Governor’s executive order, the municipal administration confirmed. Meanwhile, the government of Puerto Rico has not stopped new construction and repairs in an area seriously affected by erosion in Arecibo’s Tourist Interest Zone (ZIT, in Spanish).

The residents of Islote have submitted at least six complaints to the DRNA’s rangers against the Abreu Valentín family for used water discharges into the sea, constructions, and filling in the ZMT. The family also faces litigation from community residents over the way some of these properties have been obtained.

The Abreu Valentín family is part of the management structure of at least eight active corporations, according to the State Department’s Registry of Corporations. The CPI identified at least 22 properties in Arecibo under the name of the Abreu Valentín family or their corporations. The family also operated several businesses under corporations that have since been canceled.

Irma Valentín and her sons, Ángel and Carlos Abreu Valentín, who operated the Irma Valentín Institute and the Mary Lao Institute, were charged in 2007 with conspiracy to commit fraud and keep funds from the U.S. Department of Education that they should have returned to students who had left the institutes. According to the indictment, the appropriated money was used to pay personal loans, real estate properties, and businesses unrelated to the educational entities. In 2011, the members of the Abreu Valentín family settled and pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, avoiding jail time.

DRNA order is ignored

Since September 2022, the DRNA ordered Irma Valentín and the Construction and Health Integrated Services corporation — which was chaired by Ángel Abreu but is currently canceled — to demolish a concrete terrace that they built in the ZMT in a business they owned called El Alcázar de Colón.

“The defendant [Irma Valentín], without having a concession, permit or authorization issued by the DRNA, possesses, uses and takes advantage of structures within the maritime-terrestrial zone and public domain assets and has disobeyed verbal and written orders from officials of this Department, on multiple occasions,” according to DRNA’s resolution issued in 2022.

The DRNA ordered the demolition of the El Alcázar de Colón’s concrete terrace.
Photo by Jorge A. Ramírez Portela | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo 

One year after the order to demolish the structure was issued, Irma Valentín has not complied nor has the agency enforced it. The DRNA also imposed a $10,000 fine, which the defendants have not paid, the agency confirmed. The order to restore the area affected by the illegal construction has also been ignored.

The DRNA asked them multiple times to remove all the debris that, as part of the construction in the business, they dumped on the shoreline, but, since they did not do so, the storm surges that Hurricane María generated in September 2017, swept them away as the DRNA confirmed during an inspection in 2018 and by Irma Valentín herself in a request to be recused from the order.

Likewise, the DRNA file shows that several reports about sanitary water filtration were filed as well as deficiencies in the infrastructure of the septic tank that is two or three steps from the ocean. The business is still in operation.

The CPI asked Irma Valentín about the complaints against the El Alcázar de Colón operation but she refused to respond. Neither Roberto, Ángel nor Gladys Imar Abreu Valentín responded to the requests made to them via phone calls to comment on the environmental and property use accusations. Likewise, they rejected the approaches made through Attorney Jaime González, who has legally represented Ángel Abreu in legal proceedings.

“She [Irma Valentín] has several properties that she is appropriating and illegally building on the coastal rock,” claimed Lauce Colón Pérez, environmental activist, and resident of Islote. “She [Irma Valentín] simply goes in, cleans the [empty] house, fixes it, installs windows, doors, locks it and now she owns the place,” he added.

The organization Defendiendo La Cueva Del Indio-681 — whose spokesperson is Colón Pérez — also filed a complaint with the DRNA in 2022 against the Abreu Valentín family for their constructions in Islote’s ZMT. The CPI asked the DRNA for access to the complaint file, however, the request was not granted.

Since Irma Valentín moved to Islote, Cristina Rivera Román, leader of the organization Vecinos al Rescate de Acceso y Senderos (VEREDAS, in Spanish), has filed several complaints with the DRNA Rangers and the Permits Management Office, as well as its predecessor the Permits and Regulations Administration, for building fences in the ZMT and blocking access to the beach.

Between 2018 and 2023, residents of Islote filed at least six other complaints with the DRNA for alleged environmental violations on this family’s properties, but the assigned rangers requested their file after claiming that when passing through the area they did not see any of the reported illegal activities.

DRNA Secretary Anaís Rodríguez Vega told the CPI that not all the complaints that are presented to the Rangers, such as those by Islote residents against the Abreu Valentín family, have enough evidence and information to be processed administratively.

The CPI identified at least five short-term properties owned by the Abreu Valentín family in Islote: Ventana al Atlántico Boutique Hotel at Arecibo 681 Ocean Drive, Casita del Mar Oceanfront Romantic Retreat, Toque al Atlántico, Casita Familiar con Vista al Mar y Piscina and Discovery Inn & Suites at 681 Ocean Drive. At least four of these structures are in the ZMT. The CPI did not find ownership data for most of them either in the Puerto Rico Digital Real Estate Registry or in the Municipal Revenues Collection Center (CRIM, in Spanish).

The Puerto Rico Tourism Company also did not provide the names of the registered short-term rental properties, as well as their owners and physical addresses, to assess the extent of this problem. It only indicated that in their records there are 63 properties classified as short-term rentals throughout Arecibo. On November 21, the CPI sued the agency to provide the full information.

Colón Pérez said, “Not all of these properties have a septic tank system, and they dispose of their [waste] water in the ocean.” The CPI found comments on the website, used to promote short-term rentals, in which some guests reported that two of these structures discharge their wastewater onto the beach.

Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewer Authority (AAA, in Spanish) Press Officer Nathalia Colón Cosmé, said there is no sanitary sewer starting at kilometer 5.3 of PR-681, so residents must have a septic tank. She assured me that it is not the AAA’s responsibility to corroborate whether clients have a septic tank. She said that would be under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) and the Environmental Quality Board’s jurisdiction, which is now under the DRNA.

He claims she ‘gave’ him the home

How Dr. Abreu Valentín took possession of Serrano De Jesús’ house in Islote, is not clear, nor are similar actions by members of his family who have faced or have had civil litigation or police complaints for comparable actions.

The doctor assured in a court hearing in Arecibo that Serrano De Jesús transferred the property to him after, in 2017, he referred her to the DF because he believed that the woman, who lived alone, should not remain in the house that was affected by Hurricane Maria. The only alleged evidence is an affidavit dated April 2022 in which the homeowner’s signature does not appear anywhere.

The document that Roberto Abreu Valentín uses to claim to be the property’s owner is a sworn statement from himself in which he states that in 2017 he acquired the property from Serrano De Jesús, as the doctor himself admitted in a court hearing held in December 2022 in Arecibo due to an incident he had with a neighbor when he built a cement fence in Serrano De Jesús’s backyard. The witness identified in that sworn statement is Yelena Montalvo González, who appears as the incorporator of several businesses owned by the Abreu Valentín family and has served as a witness on behalf of the Abreu Valentín family in other legal proceedings.

Carmen Serrano De Jesús, who died last year, lost access to her home, in the Islote neighborhood, in 2017.
Courtesy photo


Interrogation by prosecutor Pedro de León of Dr. Roberto Abreu Valentín. Audio obtained through the Courts Administration Office.

At the Arecibo Judicial Center, the doctor said he did not pay for the residence, but rather invested in some repairs to the structure. He said he knew the woman because at some point she was his patient and both he and his brother, Ángel Abreu Valentín, sometimes brought her food. The DF confirmed that Serrano De Jesús was removed from her home and transferred to a nursing home, but refused to provide the name of the person who initiated the complaint that led to the removal.

At the court hearing, the doctor said he made the arrangement to transfer the ownership of the house with Serrano De Jesús around three weeks after Hurricane María hit and that he even took her to live in one of his apartments. The CPI learned that at that time, members of the Arecibo prosecutor’s office worked as volunteers in the provisional repair of the roof of the house and donated materials.

The affidavit does not show the signature of Carmen D. Serrano De Jesús, the owner of the house.

Interrogation by prosecutor Pedro De León of Dr. Roberto Abreu Valentín. Audio obtained through the Court Administration Office.

At least two CPI sources who knew Serrano De Jesús, but wanted to remain anonymous, said the woman’s wish was to leave the nursing home where she was living in Lares and return to her home in Arecibo.

Roberto Abreu Valentín did not respond to several calls from the CPI to hear his version of the controversy.

Elderly woman defends her ownership

Olga Román Rodríguez is 82 years old and is also a resident of Islote.

Since 2021, when she returned to Puerto Rico after spending a year and a half at her son’s house in the United States for health reasons, she has been fighting to make it clear that she owns the home where she has lived for decades.

After returning to Puerto Rico to sell her house, her appraiser told her that the plot of land — which is in the coastal area and borders the ZMT — was not registered in her name in the CRIM, but in the name of Gladys Imar Abreu Valentín, Roberto and Ángel Abreu Valentín’s sister, and who had a house next door that she operated as Casita del Mar Oceanfront Retreat, a short-term rental business.

This news surprised Román Rodríguez because her house belonged to her late father and he bought the share of the inheritance from her stepmother and two sisters in 1991 for $6,000.

When he returned to the island to sell his house, Román Rodríguez learned that the plot where his property is located was not registered in his name in the CRIM, but in the name of Gladys Imar Abreu Valentín, who has a house next to him that operated as a short term rental house.
Courtesy photo

“In the deeds I have it is in my name,” said Román Rodríguez, who showed the deeds to the CPI.

Once, while she was expanding her home, Gladys Imar came to warn her not to build “one more room.” This approach alarmed Román Rodríguez because the house, for two generations, has been in her family.

When Román Rodríguez showed the appraiser’s findings at the CRIM Regional Office in Arecibo, they recommended that she ask for a property ownership file, which is a court action that seeks to declare a person the official owner of the property. Román Rodríguez hired legal services to begin that process.

The CRIM’s Deputy Assistant Director of Operational Services, Edwin Joel Hernández, explained that there are two different structures on the plot of land — Olga’s and Gladys Imar’s — but there is no blueprint to assign them separate cadaster numbers. The plot is not segregated for tax purposes and only Gladys Imar appears as the owner.

Hernández said that Gladys Imar Abreu filed a change of ownership request with the CRIM in 2016 to register the property in her name. They assigned her a preliminary cadaster in which, for tax purposes, she appears as the owner of the entire plot on which her short-term rental business, Román Rodríguez’s house and an adjacent church are located.

“We depend on the taxpayer to update the information,” Hernández said.

Hernández said the controversy over who owns the property for CRIM purposes is resolved through a blueprint of the property to then move on to segregate the land for tax purposes. Abreu has not presented any plan and Román Rodríguez is looking to establish that she owns her house through the domain file, following the recommendation of the CRIM office in Arecibo.

According to the change of ownership request that Gladys Imar filed, the house on which the Casita del Mar Oceanfront Retreat business operates was obtained through an easement reached with José Corchado Velázquez, incorporator of AVINPRO, a corporation that her mother, Irma Valentín, chairs. There is no information at the CRIM about who sold the property to AVINPRO.

The CPI contacted Gladys Imar to learn her version of the claims, however, as soon as she answered, she hung up the call.

They also take over homes in Manatí

This is not the first time that a member of the Abreu Valentín family has been involved in a controversy over property ownership. On September 22, 2021, Miyanil Hernández Meléndez had to go to court in a lawsuit to get Gladys Yamir Abreu Valentín, another daughter of Irma Valentín, to vacate a house on her property that the woman invaded.

Although Hernández Meléndez had the deed to the house and was current on her mortgage payments, one day she saw someone cleaning and painting her disused property in the Tierras Nuevas Saliente neighborhood, in Manatí. According to the court file, Gladys Yamir Abreu refused to stop entering the property and insisted to Hernández Meléndez that she was in the process of buying the house. A few kilometers away, Gladys Yamir Abreu Valentín manages Manatí World Point Inn, a property that she rents short term.

The businesswoman sent text messages to Hernández Meléndez, which were presented as evidence in court, in which she said the property was a public nuisance and that she would give it back if she paid her what was invested in it.

Text messages from Gladys Yamir Abreu Valentín to Miyanil Hernández Meléndez
Image taken of the court file

On November 4, 2021, Superior Judge María A. González Cardona ruled in favor of Hernández Meléndez and ordered Gladys Yamir Abreu to leave the property.

Gladys Yamir Abreu described the occupation of properties as a family business in which apparent public nuisances are cleaned, and if the owners don’t show up, they make them their own.

“That’s why we’re successful,” she said.

Neighbor defends his property in court

Mechanic Carlos William Olmo Maldonado is also pursuing a similar lawsuit against another member of the Abreu Valentín family. The man from Arecibo — who lives in Connecticut for work — traveled to Puerto Rico in 2022 to repair damage to a property that he claims is his and that was affected by Hurricane María. He’s defending the property’s ownership in Court.

This property is also in litigation in court as a member of the Abreu Valentín family alleges that they purchased it.
Courtesy photo

In the lawsuit, he states that while he was painting the house, which is practically destroyed, and cleaning up the surroundings with his two children, a person approached him to warn him that he was responsible for the home through an order from its owner, Ángel Abreu Valentín.

Olmo Maldonado couldn’t believe what he was hearing because he alleges that more than two decades ago his relatives donated the home to him after his grandfather died in the 1990s.

He states in the lawsuit that his family has owned the property, located in the ZMT, for years. According to the lawsuit, Olmo Maldonado lived and rented the property for years without anyone questioning that he owned it.

Meanwhile, Ángel Abreu Valentín maintains that two of Olmo Maldonado’s cousins — who don’t live in Puerto Rico — sold him the property and that he has a deed of sale. In 2022, Olmo Maldonado sued Ángel Abreu Valentín to establish ownership of the property. The case is still being resolved in court and although Abreu Valentín requested the dismissal alleging that Olmo’s claim did not require a remedy, Judge Santiago Cordero Osorio did not agree and scheduled a hearing for January 10.

“In addition to the legal requirements and faults that the deed shows, this party believes and alleges that it is insufficient as a matter of law to transfer ownership and to defeat the ownership claim of the plaintiff, Carlos William Olmo Maldonado, who has owned it since 1995 as owner, steadily, publicly and peacefully until now, when an attempt is made to interrupt his possession with an illegal act of bad faith, consummated with the aforementioned deed,” according the lawsuit.

Islote resident under police watch

Scott William Teuber filed a complaint in 2023 with the Police against Ángel Abreu Valentín for allegedly destroying and looting his property and vehicle.

Teuber had not been to Puerto Rico for more than three years when they called him to tell him that Ángel Abreu Valentín had taken control of his property. He had supposedly destroyed and emptied the house that had belonged to him and his deceased partner for 11 years: he threw away his paintings, his household belongings, and even the deceased’s ashes disappeared, according to his allegations.

He said that, when he traveled to the island to file a complaint with the authorities, he opened his house and found debris everywhere. Paint had come off the walls due to unauthorized construction work on his property. The car was not in the garage either.

Although the police officers themselves saw Ángel Abreu driving Teuber’s car, according to the Police incident report, none of the charges against him for car theft, burglary, or breaking and driving a stolen vehicle prospered.

“The judge not only decided that there was no evidence to charge him with stealing the car, but with driving a stolen car, even though eight police officers saw him while he was driving it,” William Teuber said. “Then the prosecution decided they were not going to move forward to prosecute him.”

Teuber said he would sue Ángel Abreu for damages to his property and his vehicle.

Scott William Teuber filed a Police complaint against Ángel Abreu Valentín.
Photo by Luis Joel Méndez González | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Ángel Abreu was also sued in 2019 for having divided an apartment he rented on Hoare Street, in Miramar, for short-term rental.

“[Ángel Abreu] divided the second-floor apartment into small apartments and rented them under the Airbnb system, whose promotion appears under the name “MIRAMAR VILLAGE LODGE HOTEL BOUTIQUE” located on Hoare Street,” the lawsuit states. “Charging a rent of $179 per night, he currently manages four (4) apartments, without being an heir, and we have no knowledge of why he manages them, nor who gave him permission for that,” the lawsuit adds.

In his response to the lawsuit, Ángel Abreu accepted that he ran a commercial activity in the apartment he rented but alleged that the building manager knew and raised no objections. The lawsuit was withdrawn, in 2021, at the request of the plaintiffs.

Ángel, Gladys Imar, and Gladys Nally Abreu Valentín also face a lawsuit filed by the Oceanía Apartments Condominium’s Residents Board, also in the Islote neighborhood, against them and other owners for renting their apartments on a short-term basis when the regulation allegedly “prohibits the rentals of apartment units for a term of less than six months.”

Municipality says it has no complaints

Nine months ago, Arecibo Mayor Carlos Ramírez Irizarry met with the Islote neighborhood community to listen to their concerns. Rivera Román appeared to report multiple lawsuits for obstruction of public access to the beach, of which, as documented, Roberto Abreu and Irma Valentín have also been part.

The Arecibo mayor referred her to Leslie Orama Ríos, then director of the Arecibo Office of Planning, Territorial Management, and Economic Development, on the issue of public access to the beach. However, the planner never addressed the VEREDAS leader’s concerns, Rivera Román told the CPI.

Génesis Valentín, representing the Arecibo Planning Office, explained to the CPI that the municipality cannot act on the complaints of the residents of Islote against the Abreu Valentín family until they receive a formal complaint.

“We have received reports from area residents about this, but no formal complaint or citizen have come in,” said Valentín.

“I personally know, outside of work, many of the cases because I keep an eye on these disputes in the maritime-terrestrial zone,” she admitted.

Vanessa Colón Almenas contributed to this report. 

Luis Joel Méndez González and Colón Almenas are members of Report for America.


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