Neither bottom up nor top down.

When the floods come, we can simply reuse this op-ed in the L.A. Times, using a find and replace.  Same for droughts.

Large, high-intensity wildfires are an inevitable and natural part of life in California. The destruction of our communities is not. But many of the political leaders we elect and planning agencies we depend upon to create safe communities have failed us. They have allowed developers to build in harm’s way, and left firefighters holding the bag.

Planning agencies need to push back against pro-development forces in government, whose willingness to build in known fire corridors borders on criminal neglect. The recent devastation of the community of Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa, for example, was both horrible and predictable. (The area has now burned twice in 53 years.) Local leaders need to restrict development in such areas.

California has a structural gap in policy setting that allows this situation to persist.  Local agencies simply aren’t able to make hard, expensive decisions.  They are too close to their constituents; the amounts of money that can sway a city are accessible to developers.  Local agencies can’t even incorporate life-cycle costing in their own self-interest.

But the State has completely abdicated on its authority and responsibility, because of its delusion that local control is best.  This spares the State from doing the difficult work of creating and enforcing unpopular and expensive safety standards.  The proof that local control is inadequate is self-evident, but I doubt the State will ever protect her citizens from foreseeable climate threats.  It does a decent job with earthquake building standards, which it most certainly does not leave up to local jurisdictions.  But in the realm of climate events, the fetish for local control has captured the thought of every State bigwig I’ve heard from, and neighborhoods will burn, flood and desiccate as a result.


*I know some jurisdictions can incorporate longterm self-interest for a while.  But all you have to assume is that that kind of wisdom is normally distributed to see that most jurisdictions will not have it, nor have it consistently over time.  Even intermittent poor decisions will endure and create these emergencies.


ADDED 12/12:  There is a way to address this that doesn’t require a change of philosophy about “local control”.  We could make developers/country supervisors/city council members that create and approve unwise development criminally and financially liable for damages that happen during foreseeable natural disasters.  That would change their incentives.


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6 responses to “Neither bottom up nor top down.


    Thanks for LA Times link. It speaks directly to many, many issues and one fundamental one (IMHO) — too damn many people on this planet for everyone to enjoy all the freedoms we once had. Consequences, consequences.


    Richard D. Horonjeff Consultant in Acoustics and Noise Control 48 Blueberry Lane Peterborough, NH 03458-1601 603-784-5678: Land line 781-929-3553: Cell


  2. Lisa Rudman and Diane Livia

    Local control of land use and ground water (with a bit of nudging from the State) is the bane of California. The problems arising from local control include self-interest, capture by the rich, lack of funds, lack of vision, disconnection, competition between localities, and on and on.

  3. Chris Gilbert

    There’s another side to this. I’m not sure putting the state in charge will alleviate badly situated development. The state has been trying to pass laws to force local entities (ZAB’s, cities, counties) to approve development if it conforms to local zoning codes, banning local agency override ability to address special situation. This might be seen as good within the context of the argument above, but the motivation is to build a great deal more housing, not smarter housing. There is an increasing call for large increases in housing to address excessive housing costs. This may overwhelm any push to build smarter.

  4. Jon Hoge

    Any barrier you put up in the interest of “smarter” development will further worsen the housing crisis that exists for today’s young people, because for every house you save from disaster, the law will be hijacked by old NIMBYs and no growth environmentalists and used to sue to prevent any development anywhere. I’d be willing to bet the previous commenters and the author are middle aged or older and already own a house somewhere. So as a member of the younger generation who didn’t get the opportunity to take advantage of an era where growth was allowed and afford a house, then go on to pass restrictions on growth that made my house more valuable at the same time screwing people younger than me out of buying one. Thanks for nothing.

    • Chris Gilbert

      Should there be limits? What if we figured out a way to build hundreds of hundred-story buildings with increasingly popular “micro-units” so that we were able to push up the population in the Bay Area, for example, to 20, 30, 40 million like some cities in the world are already reaching, and people STILL wanted to come here and prices still didn’t come down? At some point the law of supply and demand might need to be superseded by something in favor of quality of life. And there are carrying costs to excessive development, e.g. where does the water come from; how do we get around, etc.

      Visualizing such a the future is not unreasonable. We don’t want a Calcutta (sic) or Mexico City, or at least we should be able to decide whether we do. It may be unfair but current inhabitants (should) have priority over the rest of the world as to what they want their communities, towns, cities to look like. At what point is saying no justified, and that it’s time to look at settling other places. Maybe Steve Case’s new proposal to create a mid-western Silicon Valley will materialize before it gets too bad here. In fact, it could be said that the pressure of rising housing prices, and lower quality life, could be a driving force to such productive efforts elsewhere. I’m sure half the globe would live in California if we could only keep the housing prices down, but is this what we want?

  5. jaylund

    Good points. Local government is better at somethings. State and regional governments are better at others. At its best, mixed federalist government often brings the better parts into a mutually-inspecting and supporting alignment. But government cannot be perfect.