Governing Land Use in Hazardous Areas with a Patchwork System

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Protecting areas subject to natural hazards is often a dilemma between balancing economic and legal uses of land and promoting public safety and protecting the lives of residents. The government’s role in protecting the people from natural hazard must tread the line between safety and not infringing on property rights of land owners. The federal, state, and local government primarily regulates land uses from natural hazards by incorporating disincentives or promoting land use planning. Local governments are often averse to regulating land use planning for hazard mitigation. The perception of disaster unless directly affected in the recent past infuses a sense of complacency. Also focus on other problems on the agenda puts hazard mitigation at a lower priority level. Remedial actions for built up areas can be expensive and difficult to implement due to social and political pressure.

However two factors can directly affect the use of local government’s use of land use planning and development management programs – commitment of local officials and capacity of local governments. These factors can be directly affected by the extent of community resources that public officials are willing to dedicate for mitigation and the influence of the political climate that pushes these issues up in the public consciousness.

The federal government addresses mitigation issues through a range of programs aimed at land use and development in vulnerable areas. Although the federal government prefers the local government to intervene to regulate land use planning, it also uses an overarching controlling role in preserving wetlands and high-risk areas. The federal government primarily uses investment policies to offer incentives in order to put in place remedial measures; for e.g. The National Flood Insurance Act.

The Stafford Act is intended to offer a comprehensive look at mitigation strategies and provide integrated approaches but differing goals in different states and bureaucratic tangles have not made much difference. The federal government however acts in patchwork of programs that target specific areas instead of providing a broad-based approach and strategy. The federal programs have instead shown a stronger preference for protective methods rather than mitigation and preventive approaches that effectively increase the potential for damage. Stronger land use provisions are avoiding in federal mandate and instead rely on the local governments to enforce them, who in turn differ widely in their application of such regulations.

The states on the other hand have developed a variety of programs for vulnerable regions. Although special attention has been paid to environmentally sensitive areas, protection of regions vulnerable to natural hazards such as flooding, earthquake, or hurricanes has been given low priority. The variation in state programs is attributable to various factors that stem from either the economic or political climate of the regions. The state comprehensive planning mandates have provided a sense of direction to the local governments but due to lack of regional cooperation, such mandates lead to limited and sporadic changes. The goal divergence and mistrust among different levels of the governments are also partly to blame for the inconsistencies of different state policies.

Reference: Summary – Chapter 3: Cooperating With Nature: Confronting Natural Hazards With Land-Use Planning for Sustainable Communities (Natural Hazards and Disasters)

2 thoughts on “Governing Land Use in Hazardous Areas with a Patchwork System

  1. Joyce Levine

    Regarding hazards and the “patchwork” system that attempts to address them: I live, teach, and conduct research in an exceptionally high-hazard area: South Florida. The state’s emergency-response system is among the best in the U.S. and managed to cope with four hurricanes in both 2004 and 2005, including Wilma, at one time the most powerful hurricane ever recorded.

    You would think that local decision-makers and citizens would take the risks seriously enough to manage land use and transportation decisions in ways that would reduce the risks to both lives and property.

    Instead, they are approving millions of dollars of construction on the barrier islands that lie close to the coast, from Cape Canaveral to Key Largo. A developer recently signed an agreement with a mobile-home park called Briny Breezes for a buy-out that will give owners roughly $800,000 each. For what, you ask? A quarter-billion dollars’ worth of mixed-use development. And there is little question that the development will be approved, even though the State of Florida, the regional planning council, and Palm Beach County all claim they want to limit development on the islands. At one public hearing, I asked the Broward County Commission if it wasn’t time to draw a line, literally, in the sand. I received no answer.

    Meanwhile, the residents of this low-lying region continue living ordinary lives in denial of the harsh realities. Insurance costs have soared. Broward and Palm Beach Counties in particular have no plans for public transit other than to add more buses, announcing loud and clear that transit is not for everyone. I read this morning that the MPO in Phoenix plans to widen the I-10 right-of-way to 400 feet — wide enough to land a 747, wings and all, and I shudder to think how soon a similar proposal is made for I-95. Immediately after the winds from Wilma tapered off to only 30-40 mph, people were out in their SUVs looking for ice, expecting to be “rescued”. People have been known to submit damage claims for up to a thousand dollars’ worth of frozen food that thawed before the electricity could be restored. There is little acknowledgment of the fact that they are responsible for their own survival. Florida Power & Light has dragged its heels when it comes to burying older lines underground, trims trees too infrequently, and has failed to systematically replace rotten utility poles. Then it grovels before the state utility commission for rate hikes to pay for all the damage these irresponsible actions cause, so electric bills have increased this year alone by as much as 60%. Citizens are clamoring for the state legislature to magically cut insurance premiums, while the state continues to allow the insurance companies to create Florida-only subsidiaries that wail from losses while their parent companies reap record profits nationwide.

    Last night, I attended a presentation by former Vice-President Al Gore at the University of Miami. I hope this man never runs for another political office, because his passion just might help us avoid the worst ravages of global warming — if only our leaders, and others, would listen to him. One component of his presentation focused on melting glaciers and land-based ice shelves that are starting to “slide” off the bedrock beneath them. If either the ice covering Greenland, or the West Antarctic Ice Shelf were to collapse, sea levels would suddenly rise by twenty feet. The Atlantic Ocean would obliterate all of South Florida south of Lake Okeechobee (roughly from Port St. Lucie south), roughly one-quarter of the state’s land surface.

    Is anyone here paying attention? Certainly not in the political community, which is dominated by real-estate and development interests (in fact, some cities have put forth proposals that make local developers look like environmentalists). Month after month, development south of Miami is proposed — development that will load additional drivers on northbound roads when hurricanes loom, lengthening everyone’s evacuation time. Not the local media, which followed the stampeding herd to cover Anna Nicole Smith’s estate controversy (OK, it DID take place in a courtroom in Ft. Lauderdale) but not Gore’s presentation. SUVs — especially the largest ones — are not a threatened species, although occasionally a hybrid will appear out of nowhere. People sit in their behemoths with the air conditioning running full blast while they phone clients and organize their calendars — often for more than a half-hour at a time. And the traffic engineers’ mission is clearly to stop as many vehicles as possible, as frequently as possible and for as long as possible. These incompetent “experts” actually create about half of the congestion here.

    In other words, Florida happily muddles along honoring every get-rich-quick scheme, building itself into catastrophe and nurturing global warming, all the while blaming their woes on the state legislature, insurance companies, utilities — anyone but themselves. The proverbial albatrosses have come home to roost.

    Is there any kind of solution to this mess? Perhaps, yes — but, aside from a few places in South Florida, voters in this state are Republican, and they are getting the risk level they’re voted for and perhaps deserve.

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