Real Estate & Property Law

Differing state and local regulations govern building in risky areas

After a natural disaster strikes, critics often question why the government allows building in risky areas.

There are no easy answers, the New York Times reports. The United States Geological Survey provides information about geologic features and risks, but it has no authority to regulate building. And state and local governments offer a patchwork of regulations, according to geographer Lynn Highland of the Geological Survey, who spoke with the Times.

Requirements to disclose risk can vary among states and local jurisdictions, Highland said. When government does restrict building, “often it ends up in court,” Highland told the newspaper.

Critics point to the Oso landslide in Washington state as reason for better regulation. In an editorial, the Seattle Times says the state’s 1990 Growth Management Act required cities and counties to identify areas that are hazardous because of their geography. Yet Snohomish County allowed continued development along Steelhead Drive, now covered by the mudslide, after scientists warned of danger by the hillside across the river, the article said. Even so, the county has a no-building setback near unstable slopes that is greater than in many other counties, according to the growth-management group Futurewise.

The Seattle Times says the Oso mudslide could provide an opportunity for lawmakers and regulators to adopt meaningful reforms.

Not everyone agrees with the need for more regulation. The New York Times spoke with legal experts who are wary of expanded restrictions on property. James Burling, litigation director at the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property rights group, said it can be difficult to target danger zones, and the result is that government regulation covers an area that is too broad.

“You could say everywhere on the Eastern Seaboard is in striking distance of a hurricane,” Burling said.

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