Kilauea

Hot lava glows in Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii.

This is a story about Tom and Bill. Tom and Bill live in Lavaville, a wonderful little mountain town filled with happy, friendly people. Lavaville was prosperous and had many visitors who enjoyed its natural features. The most striking of these was the source of the town’s name—the remarkable lava that nearly constantly flowed from Mount Zimmerei. Fortunately, the volcano’s eruption was slow and mild, and was quite the tourist attraction. You could walk up to the glowing red lava as it only veeerrryyy slowly flowed a short distance before cooling and hardening.

For over 100 years, the town had coexisted with lava, and had flourished in large part thanks to it. In addition to the economic benefit of tourism, the most desirable neighborhood was on the edge of town overlooking the forest and the glowing lava in the distance.

However, research found a surprising connection between the town’s trash dump located in a natural depression in the landscape and the eruption rate of the lava. Geologists found that the depression was actually an ancient volcanic caldera, and every pound of trash dumped there forced a pound of fresh lava to the surface.

Forecasts estimated it would be 50-100 years before the lava reached the houses at the edge of town.

Some residents sounded the alarm and urged the community to reduce the amount of trash they discarded. But, despite a few attempts at reduction, the community continued to generate even more total trash each year.

Tom and Bill owned neighboring houses at the edge of town. One evening, they sat outside in Bill’s backyard having a beer while looking out at the distant lava at sunset. Tom said he was worried about the lava. Bill laughed and said there was no immediate danger, so there was nothing to worry about.

Tom thought things over and ultimately decided he did not want to be on the front lines of this danger, no matter how far in the future it was. So, he sold his house and moved across town to the Highlands neighborhood.

Twenty-five years later, Tom’s daughter lived in his Highlands neighborhood house. Bill had retired and still lived in his house on the edge of town. Some nights when the winds were just right, Bill could feel the heat from the lava that was closer than it had ever been. But it was still not an immediate threat to him. Bill’s neighbors were getting worried. Both of his next door neighbors used city grants to raise their houses and place them on newly-developed lava-resistant pilings. Bill laughed at them for worrying.

Researchers refined their estimates and concluded the lava would reach the edge of town in less time than they originally thought, but they could not say exactly when it would be.

When the glass windows began to melt from the lava’s heat, it was obvious the time had come. Everyone at risk evacuated, staying with friends or family elsewhere in town. The night the lava reached the first houses, Bill’s house went up in flames and was gone in minutes. Tom’s old house, now on pilings, survived but was now inaccessible from the street because of the lava. Up in the Highlands neighborhood, the smoke from across town caused some minor damage. The owners of the Highlands houses paid for the necessary repairs.

Bill and his neighbors found that the lava damage was not covered by their insurance, and demanded the city help them out. Their property was now unfit for houses, so they told the city they wanted to trade their property for a place across town where they could build new houses.

The city debated. Would it be right for the city to use its public money to help the unprepared and under-prepared homeowners? Would that be fair to Tom and his family who got out when the danger became clear, decades before the disaster?

The city of Carpinteria is currently analyzing the dangers of sea level rise that is already measurable and is working on its Adaptation Plan. Residential development along the beach is at the top of the list of property at risk. Should the city spend public money to protect private property that is at risk? Is that fair to the rest of the community?

Now is the time to share your thoughts on these questions. As the city develops its Adaptation Plan as part of the General Plan update, public input is critical. The city is frequently giving us the opportunity to provide our input. It is up to us to participate and be heard.

Mike Wondolowski is president of the Carpinteria Valley Association (CarpinteriaValleyAssociation.org), a local organization dedicated to maintaining the small beach town nature of our community. In his 25 years of involvement in planning issues, he has witnessed visionary successes, as well as decisions that were later widely regretted. When not stuck indoors, he can often be found enjoying Carpinteria’s treasures including kayaking and snorkeling along the coast, running or hiking on the bluffs, or “vacationing” as a tent camper at the State Beach.

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