Thursday, January 21, 2010

Geology & Human Nature

Coastal cliff erosion is as old as the continents and oceans which surround them. The seaside aspect available from steep over-looking cliffs has always had appeal to people, and real estate with ocean views, or private "exclusive" access to surf-abutting property has traditionally resulted in high valuations of developments at or near the shore.
A typical real estate developer has never seen a property that didn't have potential for "improvement," and seaside property building permits are coveted near the top of all potential candidates for land use. Developers and real estate investors hungry for new projects, and the city and county jurisdictions (equally hungry for residual tax revenue, jobs and expansion) which facilitate their business, tend not to think in the long term. Exploitation is eased by ignoring the potential problems which any site is likely to present, whether it's tidal influx, erosion, creep, subsidence, unstable landfill, or proximity to flowing water. Developers will build on any kind of soil, even sand, if they are given official permission, and there are always naive and trusting buyers for any kind of property, no matter how steep the risks of damage or devastation might be. 
In poor countries, like Haiti, for instance, large populations of needy often end up living in poorly engineered developments, such as hillside shantytowns, on land otherwise unattractive for convenient use. In rich countries, or in popular recreational watering-holes around the world, exploitation of fragile landscape occurs for more deliberate purposes (principally for profit). In the wooded foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California, for instance, in the last few decades, people have begun building homes in the middle of large conifer forests, where wild or man-made fires periodically get out of control.
Humans are rational creatures, which means that they will do things for no reason other than what occurs to them at some extremity of abstraction in their minds. Even with the best of motives, they will do things that are injurious to themselves, as well as to others. But deliberate, blind self-interested motivation almost inevitably causes harm in some way. We live in a district which is described by professional soils engineers as a "slide zone." Having lived here for over 30 years, I know exactly how the ground underneath the houses on this hillside behaves--this is first-hand empirical observation, augmented or supplemented by some research into the area geology and easily available history. The ground in this area moves West, or downhill, at the steady rate of between 1/4" and 3/8" of an inch per year. This doesn't sound like much, unless you begin to think how that adds up over time, and what such a constant, unstoppable traction might cause to streets or housing foundations. Additionally, even though the ground moves at a steady pace, it does so unevenly, which means that it's moving across and up in some places, while it's going across and down in others--not unlike any geologically turbulent surface. Houses in the area get bought and sold a little faster than in other, more stable, areas, for obvious reasons. Despite this, new potential home-buyers want to believe that affordable houses do exist, and that what they can't see with their eyes, probably doesn't exist, or is a trivial footnote to the real advantages of owning a piece of choice real estate--any real estate!--as a long term investment and the delights of owning your own home. You can tell people about the slide zone, but they will look at you with suspicion. One of my neighbors, a friendly and optimistic fellow who trades real estate and even carries loans for other buyers, bought a home near us, with the intention of making extensive additions and improvements to it. Which he proceeded to do in due course. I warned him about the creep, how the slow movement tended to upset the best-laid plans of home improvements, but he just looked at me quizzically, and marched straight ahead with his plans. Now, some years later, with his tilting retaining walls, and cracked wall-joints, he's still too stubborn to admit he might have made a mistake, or too embarrassed to acknowledge the fact.  
I relate this anecdote to underscore the quality of false hope which often drives people to make wrong decisions, even when common sense (that discredited body of folk wisdom) is telling them that something is very wrong. It's almost as if people want to be deceived. Show people a cliffside property just a few feet from the edge of a steep cliff composed of sandy, poorly consolidated sedimentary particulate, and they will steadfastly allow themselves to be persuaded that this would not only be a dramatic, inspiring place to live, with the bracing sea air and changeable marine views, but that it will be safe and secure forever, from the encroachments of water, air and wind erosion.  
Apartment complexes constructed in the last 40 or so years, close to the edges of steep cliffs (in some cases to as much as 25 feet of drop-offs) along the western coast of the Pacific Ocean, were inevitably tempting fate. In the end, no one wants to take responsibility for making such bone-headed decisions as to allow these kinds of structures to be built. Insurance companies would rather not know, engineers are always ready to underestimate risk, permit departments are always ready to be persuaded by optimistic cautions, real estate sales people are always careful to write themselves out of the liability equation, and buyers are always longing to be convinced that "the experts" have given their blessing, and why would otherwise well-meaning and responsible people need to "lie" about something so important as whether your new house is likely to fall into the ocean within a decade or two? 
Do people like the ad execs working for Chevron Corporation want you to believe that they support energy conservation and a clean environment?  People do.  Do people who want to build and sell you houses constructed where no houses should ever be built, expect you to believe them when they tell you everything is just wonderful, even when they know in their hearts that this is a very white lie?  People do.
But what does it prove? In the end, it proves that people will do almost anything to make a buck, up to and including taking your money to convince you to do something that is very wrong and dangerous, not just for your pocket-book, but for you personal safety. 
Meanwhile, the local Bay Area television stations have been reporting on the latest "erosion" crisis in the town of Pacifica (an aptly named town if there ever was one), south of San Francisco. The photo above shows the precipitous situation of a large two-story apartment complex perched on the edge of an eroding cliff. The owners of the property have asked that efforts be made to "stabilize" the cliff, to avert further decay of the ground beneath their floor foundations. Coastal erosion isn't really very complicated. A website mounted by the California Coastal Commission here, explains the relatively obvious facts regarding the angle of repose, and the kinds of soils that are likely to result in long term erosion along coasts. It should be perfectly obvious, even to a five-year old, that piling (at great expense, as it turns out) large blocks of stones at the foot of this big, sandy cliff, isn't going to prevent its ultimate collapse. The engineers who okayed the project, and the people who built and sold these properties, also knew it. There's a reluctance on everyone's part--including, for some reason, even the local media's--to admit the inevitable, that this property, and others like it, are doomed, and that the best option is to evacuate them, and ultimately demolish them, before they fall right onto the beach below. 
What's most astonishing is the credulity with which society: 1) pretends to be concerned about the plight of people who so knowingly and naively bought into an eventual disaster, and 2) refuses to learn from its (or other people's) mistakes. With global warming, there's the growing suspicion that in the long run a lot of the seaside development human kind has built is doomed anyway. With a 20 year time-horizon, you can make perfectly rational stock-, and maybe even cock-eyed real estate, investments, particularly if you don't plan to be around when the shit hits the fan. Maybe I've underestimated the cynicism of developers and residents. Maybe our time horizons have shrunk to more manageable proportions. Do people consciously accept that living for the moment justifies buying real estate that sits on the edge of unstable cliffs?  
Maybe people do.      


Steven Fama said...

Your slide zone in (won't name the town, since you don't but just so you know I know, it starts with "K") screws with a lot more than "streets," "foundations" and "home improvements."

Check the docket at your county courthouse, or ask those who know, about the inter-neighbor disputes arising from property line disputes in your town. Since the survey markers along with everything else (or certain sections of everything else), only the good will of all involved prevents an insane multi-headed neighbor v. neighbor sue-fest over who knows what.

But some people don't play nice, or get all knicker-twisted about "their" property, and when the lawsuit hits -- thereby clouding title, because most everyone's lines have moved -- it's a big BIG fun mess for the insurance folks and the lawyers. The lawyers make out well, of course.

Steven Fama said...

And the piling of rocks on the shore beneath the Pacifica apartment is easily understood. You -- as with many things in life -- just have to follow the money.

The effort to save it is being paid for by the property owner. It is probably costing him a 100 grand, maybe more. It will be a failure, of course it will.

But you see, if the property owner doesn't do this, when the building crumbles into the surf, and the owner makes a claim against his insurance policy, the insurer will say, "We don't owe you anything. It wasn't erosion that primarily caused the building to fall, but your failure to take reasonable steps to stop it, even though you knew there was a problem. Knowing that there's a giant hole in your roof, you can't leave it uncovered for two months and then claim the damage caused on the 61st day was not your fault. Claim denied."

See? This way, by spending a 100 or 200 grand, the owner of the Pacifica building takes a potent claim denial justification out of the insurance companies hands. He'll have a better shot at getting his two or three million value out of the thing.