Americans Back Tough Limits on Building in Fire and Flood Zones

04 September 2020

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USA – WASHINGTON — Americans support far more aggressive government regulation to fight the effects of climate change than elected officials have been willing to pursue so far, new research shows, including outright bans on building in flood- or fire-prone areas — a level of restrictiveness almost unheard-of in the United States.

The findings suggest that the public’s appetite for government action to prepare for global warming is shifting as natural disasters worsen.

Eighty-four percent of respondents, including 73 percent of Republicans, supported mandatory building codes in risky areas, and 57 percent supported making it illegal to build in those areas. More than half of respondents favored paying people to move, including three-quarters of Democrats.

But while the findings show bipartisan support, more stringent restrictions have been generally opposed by local officials, who cite the cost they would impose on the economy. “There’s a disconnect between public preference and public policy,” said Jon A. Krosnick, a professor of communication, political science and psychology at Stanford University who led the project.

As global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, decisions about where and how to build have become increasingly important. If local governments continue to allow homes to go up in places most exposed to climate change, such as coastlines, floodplains or fire-prone wilderness, experts say, it will make generations of current and future residents more vulnerable to worsening hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other disasters.

Yet those long-term concerns have typically been outweighed by the demand for new homes, and the jobs and tax revenue that come with them. In many coastal states, the most flood-prone areas have seen the highest rates of home construction since 2010, a study last year found. And in California and elsewhere, officials continue to approve development in areas hit by fires.

“Some of the most vulnerable land also ends up being some of the highest-priced land,” said Otis Rolley, senior vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation and former North America managing director for 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative that worked with cities to better withstand shocks from climate change and other challenges. “There’s a lot of pressure on elected officials.”

A wave of disasters has pushed some cities and counties to limit where they build. The new survey — a joint project of Stanford; Resources for the Future, a Washington research group; and ReconMR, a survey research company — asked whether governments should require that new buildings in risky areas “need to be made in a way that doesn’t get damaged easily by floods.”

The support among Republican respondents was notable considering that fewer than one-third of Republican voters say global warming is a major threat to the United States, according to a Pew Research Center survey from March, and despite the party’s general aversion to new regulations.

There was even greater support for construction requirements in fire-prone areas, with 87 percent of respondents favoring them, including 79 percent of Republicans. “It’s clear that people want this,” said Ray Kopp, who worked on the project as vice president for research and policy engagement at Resources for the Future.

That public support is at odds with actual policies in most of the country. Just one-third of local jurisdictions around the United States have adopted disaster-resistant provisions into their building codes for homes and businesses, according to research by the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, an advocacy group based in Florida.

The lack of tougher codes reflects the influence of home builders and developers on local officials who oppose tougher restrictions, said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the organization. “They are really well organized, and that’s what they advocate for,” she said.

Chuck Fowke, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, said the requirements already in effect around the country were enough. New rules could “not only curtail homeownership and significantly hinder housing affordability,” he said in a statement, but “also can severely impact state and local economies.”

A more aggressive measure than mandatory building codes is prohibiting development entirely in vulnerable places, which almost no jurisdictions have done, said Larry Larson, senior policy adviser for the Association of State Floodplain Managers. He said cities and counties allowed building in flood-prone areas in part because they know the federal government will pay most of the cost to rebuild after a disaster.

“Locals can allow development and get all the taxes from development, and when the flooding or other natural disaster happens, the cost is too often picked up by the federal taxpayer,” Mr. Larson said.

The National Association of Counties, which represents local governments, said its members must weigh environmental issues along with economic ones. “Both are important,” Paul Guequierre, a spokesman, said.

Climate Fwd: What on earth is going on? Get the latest news about climate change, plus tips on how you can help.

If local governments follow public opinion and impose new restrictions on development, it’s important that they consider the effects of those changes on poorer communities, including communities of color, said R. Jisung Park, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, who focuses on climate adaptation.

While many vulnerable areas have wealthy residents drawn to the scenery, others are home to low-income families, including minorities, who can’t afford to live elsewhere, Dr. Park said. Development restrictions that increase costs could hurt those communities, he added, even if they reduce disasters in the future.

One approach would be for governments to make it more expensive to live in vulnerable neighborhoods, but subsidize low-income residents who want to move, Dr. Park. Doing both “is certainly possible,” he said.

The survey shows support for that approach. Asked whether governments should offer people money to move their homes away from risky areas, 59 percent of respondents said yes, including 46 percent of Republicans.

Getting governments to do more to protect against climate change might be easier than it seems, Ms. Chapman-Henderson said. She recalled a home builder who said to her: “No one has ever stormed city hall demanding a stronger building code. But the day they do, they’ll get it.”

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