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To Permit, Or Not!

The attached article from yesterday's NYT indicates the common problem facing authorities world-wide when it comes to allowing development to take place on risky or even dangerous terrain.

The genesis of the article arises from the Oso Landslide in Washington State that now looks like having caused the loss of 20 lives with about 30 others missing.

It quotes a 'Scientific American' blogger as saying that it "Infuriates me when officials know an area is unsafe, and allow people to build there anyway." This is of course where government (council!) power meets property rights, and often the argument ends in court. Then, when disaster strikes, people find that their insurance policies exclude the very contingencies that caused the refusal to allow development in the first place, and resort to spreading the liability amongst their more prudent cohort.

Landslides are certainly an issue in our case, but tidal ingress, and tsunamis are likely to be of far greater impact in the future of our District. But the threat of legal action by developers and owners should Council enforce prudent measures to restrict development is so great, that warning lines on maps have had to be changed along with the warnings that accompanied them in the Draft District Plan.

This caution will inevitably have a deleterious effect on every ratepayer in the District at some time in the future as householders and developers attempt to socialise losses arising from their own unwise decision making. We have already seen this scenario in countless cases throughout the country as exemplified in the situation arising with inundation in certain areas of St Albans in Christchurch - property owners claim that it is the result of the earthquake while planners are dubious and point to pressure brought about by developers to permit building in subsidence prone areas.

Anti-government sentiment is far more pronounced in the US than in NZ, but the principle is the same. "Builders and developers rarely want to hear bad news" says Prof. of Geological Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology David Rogers - "I was the most fired consultant in the Western United States!"

He went on to point out that little had been done to prepare the East Coast for storms like Hurricane Sandy, and rising sea levels - the general attitude summed up as "I'll sell the place before that" or "The scientists don't know what they're talking about."

Th answer, according to law professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University who the article suggests has a "libertarian bent" is to allow building to proceed in higher risk areas, but make sure that they (the developers, or their successors) bear the entire risk themselves. This represents a paradigm shift from the present situation (vis-a-vis the Earthquake Commission) but may serve the purpose of both protecting the rest of the population from having to share the risk, and at the same time ensure that that risk lies exactly where it should - no beg-pardons, and no recourse.

That would make developers think twice and remove the temptation to challenge every decision by Council. Incidentally, it should save councils generally substantial outlays on litigation. But it would require a major change to our current laws that would likely be unpalatable to our incumbent administration - pity!




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