Governance, Land Use and Environmental Realities
Everyone shares a demand for shelter, that safe place to hold back the elements, provide security and a buffer from life outside. The character of that shelter reflects the culture we live in, the surrounding community and the environmental amenities that define the world around us. It also defines the competition for better locations, those with a premium from nearby forests and steep cliffs with a view or proximity to the surf zone.
Exclusion costs more, but it pays the owner back at the time of resale. That very same exclusion also carries expectations of premium service, and most times the owners get it. We save expensive, exclusive homes at the expense of ancient forests; we build groins and seawalls to keep the ocean at bay. Sometimes, the cost includes loss of life for those dedicated to protecting life, limb, and property.
The fact that development occurs in places where risks of environmental hazards are high is no accident. Paraphrasing Willie Sutton, that's where the views are. We can't protect everything in the built environment though. That's the reason for insurance, to spread risk and the cost of recovery. Lately, the claims paid reveal a growing bill, and given the nature of the premiums paid by owners, a growing distribution of those costs to everyone in society. Risks increase each year given added pressure on vulnerable areas and climate shifts, and meanwhile, revenue for dealing with crisis declines.
How did we get here? The answer is, one step at a time. Most land use decisions are made at a local level. Councilors or land commissioners give permission for new housing opportunities, commercial services and industrial expansion. Made incrementally, these permits tend to be viewed at the margin. We want economic growth, but it's hard to look back and see what is impacted as we grow. Add to that, the desire for bigger, more isolated, more exclusive land uses and presto, without realizing it, we expand into fragile, difficult and complex terrain.
Can we reverse the trend? Should we care? We should all care. Housing or commercial development that runs into threatened terrain threatens all of us. Gone are the wetlands that recharge the water supply, the forests that buffer wild lands and allow biodiversity and the sand dunes that mitigate the impacts of storms. Time to turn it back, but reversing 100 years of land use permission, granted with the force of law and in good faith is hard; a difficult but not impossible task.
We have to start by recognizing the problem exists, is getting worse, and needs to be rectified. Getting there demands coordinated and consistent action.