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Limits to Development: When Should You Avoid Building at All Costs?

The fatal mudslide in Oso, Wash., highlights why people can build in disaster-prone areas and why there aren't more limits.
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Even before the massive mudslide mangled homes, residents and officials knew the risks of living in the shadow of an unstable hillside in rural Washington state. Yet they built, and continued to live in an area that 15 years ago was flagged for having a “potential for a large catastrophic failure.”

But avoiding building or uprooting people in Oso would have been a virtually impossible task, said J. David Rogers, a professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

In a country where personal property rights are coveted, government can be hesitant to force people out or stop construction without an immediate, justifiable reason, he told NBC News.

“You don’t know when that mountain’s going to come down,” Rogers said. “So if you’re in the government, it’s politically dicey to start telling people they can’t be somewhere, especially if they already live there.

“It’s like you’re putting a gun to their head — people don’t react well to that,” he added.

As a geological engineering consultant in California, Rogers said he noticed that residents were quick to seek lawyers in landslide cases.

“You don’t know when that mountain’s going to come down."

In Oso, with no government officials seeking to condemn the land along the Stillaguamish River where the slide hit, residents could stay.

However, local zoning laws ensured there could be no housing boom. Such low-density rural areas in the county don’t typically allow for more than 1 unit every 5, 10 or even 20 acres, said Mike Pattison, of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

“The zoning is highly restrictive, and you would never have seen subdivisions or cul-de-sacs and neighborhoods built out,” Pattison said.

“While Seattle has a very dense, urbanized core, it’s not that far of a drive to get to the middle of nowhere,” Pattison added. “That’s how people like it.”

Searchers with a dog work at the scene of a deadly mudslide on March 29, 2014, in Oso, Wash. Besides the more than two dozen bodies already found, many more people could be buried in the debris pile left from the mudslide one week ago.Elaine Thompson / AP

A pioneering spirit has survived in these rural communities, Pattison said, precisely because there are limits to development, ensuring that farmland and open space are preserved.

It’s an idea that other places across the United States that are prone to natural disasters must consider when there’s an outcry to rebuild.

Historically, the government has bought out communities in low-lying areas prone to floods, and they’ve stopped people from trying to build in designated flood zones.

But some people will put up a fight when it comes to losing their homes — their investments, said Dan Dolan, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University.

Local and state governments also try to help their residents. On the heavily populated East Coast, New Jersey and New York officials fought to secure federal funds so that people ravaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 could rebuild.

In a country where personal property rights are coveted, governments can be hesitant to force people out or stop construction without an immediate, justifiable reason.

To ensure building didn’t get out of hand, Washington state passed the Growth Management Act in 1990 that identifies natural resource lands, while setting other places aside for urban growth.

“You can’t take a farm and split it up and build houses,” Dolan said.

Still, he added, there remains a fierce attitude in rural areas that “it’s my land, and I ought to be able to do what I want.”

Dolan said that Americans will need to decide whether building — and having government footing the bill — is worth the greater expense to society.

But in Oso, observers say, that won’t be an issue anymore after the monster landslide destroyed about 49 homes and killed at least 17 people.

“You could give away the land, and you won’t get anyone to take it,” Rogers said. “They’re all pretty spooked.”