Quick Take:

Most disaster victims deserve our sympathy, says Lookout political columnist Mike Rotkin. But some storm disasters are predictable and avoidable. The state needs to take action to change laws that allow anyone to rebuild housing in areas that are so clearly unsuitable and dangerous for habitation, Rotkin writes. “Low-lying neighborhoods like Felton Grove, subdivisions built on unstable slopes like Love Creek and multimillion-dollar homes built too close to the bay regularly put their residents at risk and even lead to unnecessary deaths.”

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Mike Rotkin

Many Central Coast residents lost their homes and/or businesses in the recent atmospheric river storms. The sympathy and outpouring of support from the first responders, local community members and governmental agencies at the local, state, and federal level has been impressive and well-deserved. Santa Cruz County’s situation was even highlighted in the president’s Feb. 7 State of the Union message.

But there are also more than a few examples of places that got destroyed where the devastation was simply a repeat of predictable destruction that hits those areas not just during extraordinary storms, but virtually every time it rains or we have super high tides and storm surges.

Low-lying neighborhoods like Felton Grove, subdivisions built on unstable slopes like Love Creek and multimillion-dollar homes built too close to the bay regularly put their residents at risk and even lead to unnecessary deaths. They also put our first responders at unreasonable risk and end up taxing the rest of us who often foot the costs of rescue and recovery over and over again.

One has to wonder: Why are people allowed to live in such places?

The answer requires a look into history and California state law.

As long ago as the late 1800s, as part of an effort to stop unscrupulous land speculators from selling worthless lots to prospective buyers, the California legislature passed laws that say if you have a lot of record — a piece of property identified by a county’s recorder as buildable — you cannot be denied a permit to build on that property.

The idea was no one could sell you a piece of land and then not let you build on it.

It didn’t stop anyone from selling land that was physically unbuildable.

When I was a Santa Cruz city councilmember in the 1980s, I remember lawsuits where people wanted to build on the side of virtual cliffs, with maybe 10 feet of flat land on top. They wanted to cantilever the whole thing over the cliff. We had a city ordinance saying you had to build a minimum of 20 feet back from a slope of more than 20%, but we were forced to let people build something anyway.

You have to remember that up until 1960, Santa Cruz County did not have a planning department or a planning director. The county surveyor was in charge of land use decisions, including the creation of lots of record and zoning approvals. Bert Muhly, the county’s first planning director and later mayor of Santa Cruz, told me the surveyor was under pressure from the business community, which was part of a local growth machine intent on creating more customers, to create as many lots of record as possible. The surveyor’s salary was boosted based on his success in this enterprise.

Bert showed me how lots of record were created in many unsustainable locations, including all the way along Highway 9, often where the land drops off precipitously next to the roadway. (As a quick digression, this is one of the reasons creating safe walkways to the San Lorenzo Valley schools complex is so difficult.)

At Love Creek in Ben Lomond, six people died in the torrential rains of 1982 and many homes were destroyed. Because it was proposed to be built on unstable, liquefiable slopes, the Love Creek subdivision was initially denied a permit by the county planning department. But the developer, who had lots of record for his subdivision, sued the county, won, and was allowed to construct the housing.

Cleaning up mud after flooding in Felton Grove
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

When 18 inches of water fell in 12 hours on Ben Lomond in the winter of 1982, the slopes failed and the homes slid down the hillside. Then, in a weird and rather ironic twist, the residents who lost their homes, and, in some cases, the lives of family members, sued the county for having allowed them to build the subdivision at Love Creek in an unsafe place.

As you might imagine, the homeowner plaintiffs were appealing to the jurors in the case — parents had lost their children; children had lost their parents. In the end, the county won those lawsuits, but only after spending millions of local tax dollars in court.

California law also prohibits governmental agencies from recovering court costs from a plaintiff in such suits, even when the government wins its case. And the plaintiffs were probably, by then, poor and probably judgment-proof anyway.

This case has an even more bizarre side story. The plaintiffs also sued the City of Santa Cruz over the slide even though the subdivision was far away in Ben Lomond.

However, the Love Creek subdivision was 4 miles away from the city’s Loch Lomond reservoir. The plaintiffs were able to get a geological expert from Stanford University to testify that the slide was not caused by the extraordinary rainfall, but rather by “capillary action” drawing the water 4 miles uphill through a solid granite mountain from Loch Lomond, which is at a lower elevation than Love Creek, to super-saturate the soil and create the unstable slopes that led to the disaster.

A mudslide closed Bean Creek Road in Scotts Valley in January
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The city had to spend $750,000 of taxpayer money to defend itself in court.

What these stories indicate is that something needs to be done to change the state laws that allow anyone to rebuild housing in areas that are so clearly unsuitable and dangerous for habitation.

When Felton Grove floods, we are not talking about water seeping over the front door threshold despite sand bags. The houses go underwater up to their second story. But prohibiting rebuilding is not an easy sell and is contrary to state law.

Reasonably enough, people feel sympathy for the victims of these disasters. Often it is not the most recent residents who are responsible for inappropriate permits having been issued in the first place.

And there are no doubt cases where the county planning department is denying permits to rebuild some sustainable sites after disasters like the recent and past floods or the CZU fires.

But the absurdity of this situation cries out for governmental action at the state level.

Either that, or we will all just be forced to keep watching it happen again.

Mike Rotkin has lived in Santa Cruz since 1969 and teaches at UCSC. He is a five-time former mayor of the City of Santa Cruz.

Mike Rotkin is a member of the Santa Cruz Metro board of directors and the Regional Transportation Commission. He is a former five-time mayor of the City of Santa Cruz and a lecturer at UCSC.