Recovery panel's task: 'Get a sense of momentum going'
Aside from securing hundreds of millions of dollars, which lawmakers have yet to decide as the 2021 session winds down, the chairman of the Oregon House's Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery says he focused on two points.
One was for lawmakers to hear directly from the people affected by the Labor Day 2020 wildfires, which swept through much of Oregon. Given the restrictions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, that in itself was a major task.
"We can hear from agencies about how they think things are going," said Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem. "But we needed more of an on-the-ground feedback from people. That gave us our playbook for the rest of the work, along with bills introduced by members whose districts were impacted by the fires or had been impacted by fire in the past."
Technology enabled members of Clem's committee, plus the Senate committee that dealt with wildfire recovery and natural resources, to conduct four virtual hearings by region. They spent 14 hours listening to people.
The second focus was to let people and local officials know that lawmakers would not allow rebuilding efforts to stall, even though recovery will take years.
"Based on talking with people, the initial pace of recovery was not where we needed to be," Clem said. "We needed to get a sense of momentum going. We want people to recover in a few years, not a decade."
Clem, 48, has represented a largely urban district in central and east Salem since 2007. But he grew up in Coos Bay. He led the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in four previous legislative cycles, and was a member two other times. He's also led a House committee on land use twice, and sat on a joint land use committee in his first term.
While much of the post-wildfire discussion focused on future forest management and fire suppression, Clem said House Speaker Tina Kotek felt something was missing.
"She said there was a lot of discussion about wildfires, but no one was focused on recovery, trying to figure out the barriers and knock them down," he said. "So out of the blue I got this new challenge."
Half of the 10 members represent districts affected by the wildfires, and Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Portland, is a firefighter with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.
"…there was a lot of discussion about wildfires, but no one was focused on recovery, trying to figure out the barriers and knock them down." — Rep. Brian Clem
Several bills ended up doing just that — eliminating potential barriers to rebuilding.
The key bill is House Bill 2289, which awaits Gov. Kate Brown's signature. It requires cities and counties to approve replacements or repairs of houses destroyed in the wildfires, exempt property owners from those approvals for specified nonresidential uses, and direct the Department of Environmental Quality to issue permits for septic systems for approved houses.
Under it, Clem said, owners would have to rebuild according to codes in effect in 2008 or when the building was built, whichever is later.
"We also drafted it so that their neighbors cannot sue them at the Land Use Board of Appeals if they are rebuilding," he said. "The neighbors cannot tie them up in court for years, the way they could if it were a brand-new building.
Other bills include:
• HB 2607 is awaiting a Senate vote. It exempts replacement or repaired housing from construction taxes.
• Senate Bill 405 has been signed by the governor. It requires cities and counties to allow until Sept. 30, 2025, for property owners to replace or restore nonconforming land uses. Such uses are allowed, but Oregon law specifies if those uses are interrupted or abandoned for one year, they are forfeited.
• HB 3219 awaits the governor's signature. It requires local governments to approve manufactured housing parks destroyed in the wildfires and applies primarily to a stretch between Ashland and Medford where the Almeda Fire destroyed an estimated 2,500 homes — the largest single concentration lost in the Labor Day wildfires.
• House Bill 2272, awaiting a House committee vote, would do something similar with a proposed recreational vehicle park in Lane County.
• HB 2809 also awaits the governor's signature. It sets 24 months, rather than 12, as the maximum for a recreational vehicle to be parked on a property where an owner is repairing or rebuilding a single-family or manufactured house.
Four of these bills passed with Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, the lone dissenter in either chamber.
Two other bills, both pending in the Senate, would allow counties to waive interest penalties for unpaid or late property tax bills for one year (HB 2247) and prorate property taxes (HB 2341), both applicable where the governor declares wildfire emergencies.
Some wildfire recovery money for local governments was included in a budget reconciliation plan that cleared the Legislature in April.
Aside from the House committee proposal for a much larger recovery funding package of $900 million from the tax-supported general fund, lottery bond proceeds and federal funds — legislative budget writers had not decided how much of HB 3127 to approve by early June — Clem said the biggest unresolved question is replacement housing.
HB 3272, which went through a different committee and awaits the governor's signature, requires insurance companies to allow 24 months for policyholders to rebuild instead of 12 months when wildfire emergencies are invoked.
"Figuring out temporary housing and transitioning people to permanent housing is the trickiest thing we can work on," Clem said.
"Different people want different things. Some people are just waiting to get their places built and have been waiting nine months. Others do not have enough money to build now with today's building costs. The amount they got from the insurance company is not enough and they ran short. So we have to support them in some way.
"Others are totally helpless and ineligible for federal aid, for example. So they need subsidies for some sort of shelter. Others are in between all of those."
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