The Lesson for Maine From Hurricane Harvey

The pain and suffering of the residents of coastal Texas and Louisiana fill us all with feelings of empathy and concern for their future.  Most of us can only imagine losing all of our physical possessions and having to start over again.

Hurricane Harvey brought an unprecedented rainfall event in U.S. weather history.  So the obvious “lesson” piece I should write is about human-induced climate change.  Alone, this storm says little about climate change.  Coupled with all the other climate data and events it says volumes.  Climate models predict that one central aspect of our future climate is more intense precipitation from more storms.  Such a lesson piece would have pointed out the irony of devastation from climate change to a city built on the back of the hydrocarbon-based economy.  But I am resisting that temptation.

For me the compelling lesson from Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in Houston is the failure of “market-based land development” as an alternative to effective public land use regulation.  In my graduate studies in land use policy at UMaine in the late 1970s, I encountered for the first time the example of Houston to justify a land development policy without zoning and other restrictive land use regulation.  The idea was simple.  The land development market would create incentives for people to use their land wisely and disincentives to develop in places that would be inappropriate.  Houston continues to proudly proclaim its “no zoning” policy.

The idea of market-based land development is similar to the ideology of financial market deregulation advocates 20 years ago.  They argued that financial markets worked so well that bad actors would be penalized by the market mechanisms.  Hence, financial market regulation was unnecessary.  The Great Recession showed the fallacy of this approach.

In the case of both land and financial markets, we witness that markets are often good at identifying some short term costs and benefits of activities but are very bad at accounting for long term effects.  When the costs of shortsighted decisions arrive, the beneficiaries (Houston developers or financial market manipulators) are usually long gone from the scene.  So while several large financial institutions have been penalized for criminal behaviors in the financial market crisis, no individual was held to account.  Rather, the executives responsible for the illegal behavior of firms earned mega bonuses and rode off into the sunset.  The lack of effective zoning in Houston reflects a similar failed ideology.

Central to any effective land use regulation is an initial survey of the land, water, plant, and animal resources of a community or region.  This natural resource assessment provides a foundation for identifying the types of land uses that can and cannot be supported over the long run.  Environmental threats like floods, earthquakes,  and fires are identified.  Land markets have no such biophysical starting point.  Markets identify the behaviors of willing buyers and willing sellers, based on their limited knowledge of the landscape and their short time horizon for the use of the land.  Few land owners can identify the 100-year flood risk for their properties.  Most of us think, understandably, that what has happened in our life experiences is what is likely to happen in the future.

So, a market-based development policy may result in land use that is appropriate for the short-term but devastating in the long run.  No land use regulation would have prevented incredible damage from this hurricane, but the damage would have been much less with effective regulation of the development market.  Public interest needs to be a central tenet of our development policy.  Had that been the case, fewer people would have lost everything in this devastating storm.  You and I would not be facing the payment of what is estimated to be over $100 billion of Federal aid to help the region rebuild.

For us in Maine the lesson is clear.  We need to remember that today’s good weather and calm seas will not always prevail.  The seas are rising and storms will be more intense in the future.  We need to pursue zoning and other land use regulation that reasonably protects us in the likelihood of these future weather events.

Think about our obligation this way.  Imagine you live in Maine fifty years from now and experience a hurricane like Harvey.  Will you be grateful for or will you regret the decisions we make today about where and what development is allowed?  Did we take a short-term approach and get as much development as possible as cheaply as possible?  Or did we make reasoned decisions that took into account the impacts of our decisions today and into the future?

The mental exercise for thinking about the future in this way is called retrospective assessment.  Look back in time and think about decisions that our predecessors made in the past.  For which decisions do we feel regret and for which do we feel gratitude?  By thinking about the past in this way we gain some insight into how future generations will respond to our decisions of today.  Let me give you an example.

Union Station Bangor Maine

Union Station in Bangor was demolished as part of the Federal Urban Renewal programs of the 1960s.  Many residents regret this loss of a landmark and we can imagine what a redevelopment of this structure might have done for the ambiance of the city had the building not been razed.  What decisions today will our descendants regret in a similar manner?

By asking about our development in this way we literally invite the next generation and the one after that to sit at the table with us and decide together what serves us and them.  Learning this lesson from Hurricane Harvey would bring some out of this devastating weather event.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.