Thursday, January 13, 2005

La Conchita: Personal Risk, Community Responsibility

As the surviving residents of the beleaguered coastal town of La Conchita try to dig their homes out of the mudslide, many are determined to continue to make their home there, despite the obvious risks. "We'll be back," residents told Governor Schwarzenegger. Others say that Ventura County should have done more to protect them. It raises an interesting question: where should the line be drawn between personal liberty to take one's own risks and the responsibility of the community for the general welfare?

If you haven't noticed La Conchita as you passed it on your way up to Santa Barbara, it's that one-street town squeezed in between the coast highway and the 600-foot bluff towering over it. The bluff has been called the most mudslide-prone stretch of California coast, and this isn't nearly the first time the mud has buried the town. While I can understand the seduction of a small town with the Pacific at your doorstep, surely those who moved in after the big slide of 1995 had to notice the posted "danger" signs.

Do those doggedly determined residents have a right to live on their own land, despite the clear risk? Absolutely, they have that right. The right to live where and how one wants is among the most fundamental. It is essentially American to be able to take our own risks. If people choose to live under an unstable hill, or at the edge of a fire-prone canyon, that should be their choice. But at some point, that choice to take such risk must constitute opting out of the community's responsibility for their welfare. The lines are certainly drawn clearly enough in the insurance market. I don't imagine the La Conchita folks were ever able to purchase any home insurance. Yet some think that the people of Ventura County should all share the cost of building a $45 million retaining wall that might protect the town from another slide, or that the County should condemn all the homes and pay market value for them (an equally costly proposition). That hardly seems reasonable to me. People have the right to take their own risk, but they don't have the right to drag the rest of us along on the downside of their risks. That's like smokers complaining about paying higher insurance rates. I say whoever wants to should be allowed to live in La Conchita, but that all who make that choice have to put up a $10,000 bond to cover the costs of their next rescue. Isn't that the American way? Liberty and responsibility.

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