Viewpoints: Quake fault maps have to be right – for safety and economic development

Sometime between now and mid-November, the California Geological Survey will release its final map of earthquake fault zones for Hollywood. The public policy and financial implications of this process will be felt statewide as numerous other maps will soon be produced.

Under state law, the Geological Survey and the state geologist issue maps that tell cities, counties and state agencies where active faults exist within their jurisdictions. These maps then guide where new buildings can go – and where development is prohibited.

No one can argue the importance of this task – especially after the Napa earthquake on Sunday.

For many years and in some cases decades, there have not been new fault maps because of the lack of funding for the required review and studies. Thanks to legislation authored by Sen. Ted Lieu and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, there is now money for these new maps, which is positive. It will remain a positive as long as the process relies on serious science and the state geologist understands the implications that new maps will have on California.

In urban areas such as Hollywood, putting an active fault line on a map will have huge implications. If a structure currently exists, there’s really nothing that can be done. People won’t be kicked out of their homes or businesses; rather, they will be told they live or work over an active fault and should prepare accordingly. Besides the real life implications, there are a host of financial implications, including insurance bills and resale values.

The economic development implications of a map that shows an active fault line in the wrong place could fly off the scale. If an active fault line goes through property where development could happen, “no structure for human occupancy” may be placed across the fault. This means that everything from construction jobs to the chance for infill housing on the site is stymied.

The Geological Survey’s preliminary map of Hollywood puts a fault zone under the iconic Capitol Records tower and various properties that have been approved for development, including the proposed Millennium skyscrapers.

A public process does exist to help inform the state geologist, who is head of the state Geological Survey. The state Mining and Geology Board takes public comment on the preliminary map and holds hearings on the matter. The board includes geologists and other experts. Unfortunately, state law does not allow the board to make a decision on the maps. It can only forward the information they receive and make a recommendation to the state geologist.

In the case of the preliminary map for Hollywood, a lengthy report was issued by the board’s executive officer detailing independent scientific studies. He noted that if their results were confirmed, the fault map would have to be changed. Testimony was heard on the results of trenching along the proposed fault lines as well as observations of state officials who toured the trenching at various times. The results were clear: Two of the numerous fault strands on the map should be removed.

With all the scientific evidence that has been provided, should the state geologist return a final map that includes the two fault strands in question, then one might assume that the decision could be appealed to the Mining and Geology Board. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Under current law, the decision solely rests with a state agency and a single, unelected state official.

Everyone in California – especially those who own property, count on construction jobs and want to revitalize their communities – should care about what happens to the Hollywood map. It will have wide implications for future maps, for the credibility of the California Geological Survey, for people who would be told by the state they are living and working on fault lines that do not really exist and, of course, for our economy.