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No Easy Way to Restrict Construction in Risky Areas

By JOHN SCHWARTZ MARCH 28, 2014

Searchers walk into the scene of a deadly mudslide that covers the road, Wednesday, March 26, 2014, in Oso, Wash. After disasters like the Oso landslide in Washington State, a common question is why people are allowed to live in such dangerous places. On the website of Scientific American, for example, the blogger Dana Hunter wrote, “It infuriates me when officials know an area is unsafe, and allow people to build there anyway.” But things are rarely simple when government power meets property rights. The government has broad authority to regulate safety in decisions about where and how to build, but it can count on trouble when it tries to restrict the right to build. “Often, it ends up in court,” said Lynn Highland, a geographer with the United States Geological Survey’s landslide program in Golden, Colo.

Her agency provides scientific information about geologic features and risks, but it has no regulatory authority, and state and local regulations are a patchwork, she said. When disaster strikes, people find that their insurance policies do not cover landslides withoutspecial riders that can be ruinously expensive.

 “We tell people ‘buyer beware’ ” when buying or building a home, Ms. Highland said, because risk disclosure requirements vary so greatly from state to state and even from county to county.

The government constantly struggles with the issue. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey backed programs to help the state’s coastal residents stay in their homes, while next door in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo favored programs that would provide incentives for those along the shore to move. Congressional efforts to reduce incentives to rebuild in areas that flood repeatedly have been significantly weakened with a bill passed this month that delays cost increases for flood insurance.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, planners came up with sweeping proposals to rebuild a safer, stronger New Orleans, consolidating its smaller population into neighborhoods on higher ground, and transforming low-lying areas into parkland and drainage.

“I took a lot of fire on that,” said Joseph Canizaro, who headed the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. “We were trying to save lives,” he added, but people did not want to be told where to live and what to do with their homes. Edward Blakely, who led the New Orleans recovery effort, said that when he discussed some of the proposals, “people either laughed at me or were very upset.”

New Orleans is not unique, said Dr. Blakely, a professor at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney in Australia. “We have really overbuilt on really dangerous ground all over the country.”

Communities have occasionally been moved out of hazardous areas after disasters. The tiny town of Valmeyer, Ill., was destroyed in the 1993 Mississippi River flood, and residents recreated the town on a nearby bluff about 400 feet higher than the sodden predecessor, using $35 million in federal money. In Washington State, King County began buying homes in an unincorporated neighborhood in the 1990s that was subject to repeated, dangerous floods. Over 20 years, the county bought 60 homes.

Restricting the right to build is hard, said J. David Rogers, a professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. “That’s Big Brother,” he said.