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Real Estate & Property Law

: Kelo and Beyond

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By Greg Alvarez

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As with the rest of America, I've been keeping a passing eye on what's happening in Southern California these days with the fires ravaging swaths of land across the region. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes to escape the flames. The effects are catastrophic, with over a 1,000 homes destroyed to date, and the region being turned upside down. Having just moved from the Los Angeles area at the end of last year, my thoughts turn to the places that I've been that are now either in trouble or have already faced the wrath of the fires. My wife attended Pepperdine, which was on the brink of being engulfed. In Lake Arrowhead, about an hour and half to the east of downtown, friends of mine have a home. Down in Orange County, where more fires rage, other friends live and work. Further down around San Diego, the conflagration has forced the likes of golfer Phil Mickelson to leave his home. The San Diego Chargers were forced to fly to Arizona, to practice for their game this weekend. Their home, Qualcomm Stadium, is being used as an emergency shelter. Even north of Los Angeles, the television show "24" had to suspend shooting in light of the advancing flames.

The sheer size of the fires more than anything else highlights the sheer surface area engulfed by the Los Angeles/San Diego megaplex. And in some ways, this geographic reality, and the land use choices that have been made in creating the Southern California behemoth, have set the stage for such disasters to happen. Essentially an extension of the Mohave Desert, the Los Angeles Basin has pumped in its water, and thus its livelihood, to create the artificial metropolis. Similar to the ways in which 1871 Chicago, and 1666 London suffered the "Great Fires" of the pre-modern world on account of certain practices and land use choices, the same is true of modern day Los Angeles. Whereas Chicago and London lacked sufficient fire fighting techniques and departments, not to mention suffered from overcrowding and unchecked hazardous activities within their city centers, Los Angeles and San Diego has succumbed to being sited on a spot susceptible to drought and unfavorable Santa Ana winds.

There is no place for "I told you so"s in a time like this. In addition, in the course of human events, no matter what we do to prevent bad things from occurring, there will always be a finger to point that suggests it's our own doing. Look to any major metropolitan area in the nation, and each faces some sort of potential for massive calamity. Miami and New Orleans must withstand the ever-growing strength of hurricanes. San Francisco faces the threat of the impending "big one." Even my current home of New York faces the risk of being under water as the polar ice caps continue to melt. And then there's the impending threat occurring in the Southeast, where the water supplies are dwindling to nothing. States, and all sorts of governmental agencies, are fighting over reserves, as the sizes of reservoirs shrink. And slowly the drought conditions going on "down South" are creeping north and west. Are our wasteful land use practices to blame here as well?

At the bottom of it all is the more disturbing hypothesis that no matter how we live, all that our species can really do to stem the tide is to slow down the inevitable, rather than eradicate it completely. Sure, the fires will be extinguished, and the droughts will end. But then what? There are hopeful types out there like recently-minted Nobel laureate Al Gore who believes we can turn things around. But do we really have it in us? And when it comes to our approach to land use, is there really anywhere we can go to prevent us from suffering some level of calamity as a result of where we decide to settle and build? There may be answers, but perhaps the discussion has to grow louder and more sustained.

Full post as published by Kelo and Beyond on October 24, 2007 (boomark / email).

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