It’s not often you find a land development story (outside of Kelo) that’s worth a debate, but there’s one playing out this month that might have some broader implications worth considering. In the state of Oregon, work is underway to construct a new ocean-studies building, which sounds normal enough. But it’s being constructed right in the projected path of a tsunami which geologists are convinced is coming one of these days. It’s just a question of when.

But the state legislature went ahead and repealed a previous ban on new construction of critical facilities, including schools and police departments. This has many observers concerned for obvious reasons. (Associated Press)

With sunlight sparkling off surrounding Yaquina Bay, workers are putting up an ocean-studies building, smack in the middle of an area expected to one day be hit by a tsunami.

Experts say it’s only a matter of time before a shift in a major fault line off the Oregon coast causes a massive earthquake that generates a tsunami as much as seven stories tall.

Even as work on Oregon State University’s Marine Studies Building was underway in Newport, the Legislature went a step further and repealed a ban on construction of new “critical facilities” in tsunami inundation zones, allowing fire stations, police stations and schools to be built in the potential path of a tsunami.

Let’s get the obvious joke out of the way. If you build your ocean studies facility in the path of a tsunami you’ll certainly have plenty of opportunities to study the ocean when it arrives in your lobby. (Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.)

It’s not hard to see how some people could feel that the state was being overly cautious with the previous ban. After all, we’re not generally that good at predicting earthquakes and blocking off development on significant tracts of prime real estate out of fear of something that may not happen in your lifetime can be a tough sell.

But this case is somewhat different, at least from the layman’s point of view. The region of concern is called the Cascadia subduction zone, a fault line running under the Pacific Ocean a short way to the west of the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada. I’ve watched a few documentaries on this one and the predictive science involved here looks pretty convincing. That zone has produced massive (greater than magnitude 8) quakes on a fairly regular basis going back a very long time, averaging every three to five hundred years.

We even know the exact date of the last one. It happened in January of 1700. The Native American tribes in the region also recorded it in their oral histories (as a battle involving the Thunder Bird) because the resulting tsunami just destroyed the entire area. Geologists digging down further have found the evidence of many more such events, all spaced fairly evenly along the geological record. And every time they produced a massive tsunami.

Officials are saying that the building will be taller than any tsunami and the roof can serve as a shelter, with food and water for several days stored up there. But how much trust are you going to put in the construction if a wave that size is coming? Also, the wave will arrive in a little over an hour. How many people can you evacuate to the Ocean Studies center in that amount of time, particularly when they are recovering from just having been hit with a magnitude 8 earthquake?

I don’t envy Oregon this decision. If you approve all the construction and the wave never comes (at least for a few centuries) you’re going to be fine. But if you make this move and the tsunami strikes next year, you’ll have a lot of questions to answer if there are large numbers of bodies washing out to sea.