MY SIDE OF THE STREET: Taxpayers can expect to bail out flood plain residents

Those of us who believe there is a place for reasonable limits on development of private property were concerned when two new Humboldt County supervisors were elected who do not share our views.
MYSIDEOFSTREET Mark Lovelace is now a lone voice in the wilderness as the rest of the board works to dilute the general plan update, which has already been in the works for more than a decade. Even San Francisco, infamous for its extreme dysfunction in planning matters, resolves issues more quickly, but local anti-planning forces managed to obstruct and out-wait supervisors with more centrist positions.
But recently, the four-member majority of the board exceeded itself in folly by rejecting a sensible staff recommendation to prohibit development within 100 year flood plains. That means there is a 1 in 100 chance of flooding in any single year, based on historical data; severe weather events seem to be happening more frequently than they did in the past, so even those estimates may be low. Humboldt has quite a few such areas, between coastal zones and rivers, streams and other waterways.
I would have thought it is now obviously good policy to avoid building in flood plains, especially considering the results of Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and hundreds of other weather events in just the past few years, which have destroyed homes and businesses and taken lives. Thankfully, Humboldt doesn’t get hurricanes, but we often get too much rain too fast for it to all soak in or run off. Still, some people aren’t worried about flooding.
“When I look at the word ‘prohibit,’ I have it underlined several times,” said Supervisor Virginia Bass. “I wish we could use something that’s more like ‘discourage.’” Without disrespect, if Bass has problems with the word prohibit, she needs to reconsider her job. She’s being paid rather handsomely – about twice the median wage in Humboldt – to make decisions which protect the county from liability.
She’s been around long enough to know the county had to buy out cabins on the eroding coast north of Trinidad. They should never have been permitted in the first place, and when their septic systems started landing in the tide, taxpayers paid the cost of demolishing them and reimbursing the property owners for their foolish investments. The developer did not step forward to make them whole.
The Humboldt Association of Realtors has said that if residential development in flood plains is prohibited, affordable housing will suffer. That sounds to me like they want to stick poor people in hazardous areas. I wonder if they’ll at least offer free swimming lessons with each house or apartment?
Supervisors were determined not to forbid flood zone development, so the question became how they would try to mitigate the danger. Maybe the buildings could be “elevated,” in other words, built on stilts. That should work well in the next major earthquake.
The pro-development group couldn’t even agree that it would be a good idea to limit impervious surfaces, such as pavement, when developing flood plains. Every square foot of impervious surface reduces the ability of the ground to absorb water, but that will be the residents’ problem, not the developers’. It will also be the county’s.
Taxpayers will be on the hook. Once the developer has reaped the profit, the new property owners will expect public bailouts every time the water rises. We see it time and time again.
So I propose some mitigation measures of my own. Developers should be required to post a bond to cover a reasonable number of clean up and rebuilding episodes – say five per property. The bond would need to be pre-funded, so the developer couldn’t just declare bankruptcy and get out from under the obligation.
I know some of you are thinking that would too expensive, and make the development a bad deal. You’re right, but it’s a bad deal whether the developer assumes the risk, or the property owner does. And the deed for every parcel should include a watertight disclosure that public money will never be available to repair or rebuild after water damage of any kind.
That way the end user would know what the risks were up front and could make an informed decision. After investigating flood insurance rates, prospective buyers might choose to pass, but if they take the chance, taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to pay for their decisions. You’d think that fiscal conservatives would be happy to agree to such measures, but you’d be wrong.
They are only fiscally conservative when it comes to public money being spent on social services. Private profit is their idea of the best possible use for taxpayer resources. It’s going to be a long four years.
(Elizabeth Alves reflects once again that denial is not just a river in Egypt. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press or to

One thought on “MY SIDE OF THE STREET: Taxpayers can expect to bail out flood plain residents

  1. Hard to believe our insurance agent Supervisor voted to allow floodplain development. I wonder what FEMA will have to say about that, since they are in the process of expanding the 100-year floodplains to keep up with reality. Or are we so self-reliant we don’t need FEMA anymore?

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