Zoning Practice — November 2009

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by David R. Godschalk, FAICP, author of the October 2009 Zoning Practice article "Safe Growth Audits."

Question from Heidi Recksiek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

This may be a bit off topic from safe growth audits, but I wondered if you would share your thoughts on key "barriers and benefits" related to the incorporation of hazard mitigation/resilience measures in local-level land-use planning. Following a "community-based social marketing" approach, we have a project under way to identify factors that prevent/constrain planners and local officials from incorporating hazards resilience in land-use planning/regulation, as well as potential benefits that might be highlighted or enhanced to encourage local planners and officials to incorporate hazards. If you have thoughts on barriers and benefits for these specific target audiences (local planners and local officials), they would be much appreciated. Thank you!

Answer from author David Godschalk:

Your question gets at the root of the problem underlying incorporation of hazard mitigation / resilience measures in local land-use planning.

What are the perceived barriers and benefits, and do the perceived barriers outweigh and hence prevent the adoption of effective mitigation measures?

In my experience, the three main perceived barriers are:

  1. Low Funding Priority. The reluctance of local elected officials to invest resources in mitigation of potential hazards, as opposed to more visible and pressing local issues, until after a disaster has struck. (The head in the sand/not on my watch syndrome.)
  2. Developer Fears. Concerns from the local development community that mitigation measures add costs to their projects or reduce development potential in hazardous areas. (The minimize bureaucracy/let the market decide syndrome.)
  3. Public Apathy. Lack of pressure from local interest groups on behalf of mitigation projects due to inability to visualize impacts on their objectives and constituents. (The leave it to the technical experts/we're too busy syndrome.)

The main benefits are:

  1. Vulnerability Reduction. The primary purpose of mitigation is to reduce the probability of serious loss or damage due to natural hazards.
  2. Increased Public Safety. Implementation of hazard mitigation measures increases the ability of the community to keep itself safe from future disasters.
  3. Environmental Protection. Mitigation protects the natural environment in recognition of its capacity to reduce the impact of hazards.

The main benefits are very important, but unfortunately they lack the certainty and specificity of everyday events and they require decision makers to consider the likelihood of unpleasant occurrences.

How can a community be encouraged to plan ahead to overcome the inertia of ignoring hazards before they occur? Here are some ideas:

  1. Buildout Analysis. Carry out a buildout analysis to illustrate the amount and location of property and the percentage of community land that is at risk due to being zoned for development in hazard areas.
  2. Safe Growth Audit. Conduct a safe growth audit to make clear to citizens and elected officials how current community policies and practices are endangering public safety, both community-wide and in specific neighborhoods, and how these policies and practices could be changed without major fiscal implications.
  3. Public Education. Educate the community on the economic benefits of hazard mitigation, drawing on the national study that found benefits outweighed costs by four to one, as well as on related case studies of places where both developers and the public have reaped benefits from pre-disaster mitigation, such as Charlotte and Kinston, North Carolina.

Second Question from Heidi Recksiek:

Thanks so much for this thoughtful response. The barriers you mention definitely resonate with what I witness here in the Gulf, and these ideas will inform our project.  Build-out analysis and safe growth audits are techniques we could recommend in our Coastal Community Planning and Development workshop — we've recently tried to incorporate resilience-related content, so these are great ideas for that work.

One follow-up question for you: At least in Florida, I have gotten the impression that local government folks also do not pursue more regulation to limit or prohibit coastal development in hazardous areas because they have a perception that they will be slapped with takings suits. Have you found this to be a barrier in other places?

Answer from author David R. Godschalk:

One answer to that problem is the "Do No Harm" approach, called "No Adverse Impact" by the Association of State Floodplain Managers. It is aimed at protecting everyone's property rights by providing a fair foundation for safe development through safe land-use and building codes. It broadens the concept of property rights to protect those who would be adversely impacted by the actions of others.

See the legal aspects slide presentation by Ed Thomas at http://dels.nas.edu/dr/docs/dr15/Thomas.pdf; the article by Larson and Placencia at www.floods.org/NoAdverseImpact/NAIjournal.pdf; and the ASFM Handbook on No Adverse Impact in the Coastal Zone at www.floods.org/index.asp?menuid=340.

This approach will be discussed during the New Orleans APA National Planning Conference by a 7:30 a.m. panel on April 11, headed by Kelli Sertich and including Arrietta Chakos, Gavin Smith, Ed Thomas, and me. The short title of the panel is "Prescription for Safe Delta Development." It will explore how far state and local governments can go in regulating development in hazardous areas before serious legal complications arise.

Third Question from Heidi Recksiek:

Thanks Dave. I'm very familiar with NAI (CSC partnered with ASFPM to do the coastal version) and Ed's legal work. My question was whether you think there is a perception amongst local officials/planners that they will be subject to takings suits if they try to regulate development in hazardous areas (even though ASFPM's legal work has demonstrated that such cases are rarely successful)? Essentially, I'm wondering if this is an area where outreach/education is needed more than any actual legal reform.

How we as a society define the concept of private property is something that really interests me -- I just recently sent the attached article/essay from Orion (“The Culture of Owning,” Eric Freyfogle, March/April 2005) to Ed and thought you might like it as well.

Answer from author David R. Godschalk:

You will probably be more aware than I am of this sort of perception. I have not heard it discussed in North Carolina, but it may be out there.

In any event, I suspect that many local officials and planners are not aware of the ASFPM's legal work. So a strong outreach/education effort would be very useful to allay their fears about takings suits and to encourage them to follow through on predisaster mitigation.