Politics

Wildfires prompt Oregon to adopt new rules for emergency housing outside urban areas

By Jeff Mapes (OPB)
Oct. 23, 2020 7:21 p.m.

Prompted in large part by the devastating wildfire that swept through two southern Oregon cities, the state’s land-use officials are easing the rules for locating emergency housing outside of urban areas.

Oregon’s Land Conservation and Development Commission, which oversees the state’s legendarily strict system for limiting urban sprawl, on Thursday approved the new temporary rules. They could help displaced residents throughout the state hit last month by wind-driven wildfires that in total destroyed more than 4,000 homes.

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“This is a different way of thinking for us,” said Jon Jinings, an official for the Department of Land Conservation who helped write the new rules. “This is a new frontier for us.”

The new rules open the door to locating emergency housing villages outside urban growth boundaries. It also eases rules for siting temporary housing in campgrounds and next to existing rural residences.

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The biggest need is in Jackson County, where the Sept. 8 Almeda Fire swept through Phoenix and Talent, destroying more than 2,300 residences, most of them mobile homes. Those mobile homes served many low-income residents with scant options in the area’s tight housing market.

Josh LeBombard, the Southern Oregon regional representative for the land-conservation department, said the difficulty of finding emergency shelter for thousands of displaced residents within those two cities led officials to look at other options. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is first looking at reconfiguring current buildings — such as local college dormitories. But the new state rules would also allow FEMA to look at the areas right outside the two cities. Those are so-called urban reserves that are now in rural use but are first in line for urban expansion.

In addition, LeBombard said state and local governments and nonprofit groups may also develop their own emergency housing villages to accommodate undocumented residents and others who are wary of federal authorities.

The rules changes did face some opposition. Craig Anderson of Rogue Advocates, a Southern Oregon group that supports strong land-use controls, expressed skepticism about whether the rules are needed. He told the commission that he feared that temporary housing could wind up becoming permanent.

Under the new rules, emergency housing outside urban growth boundaries could be permitted for up to three years. A county could also grant up to two 12-month extensions.

Lincoln County Commission Chair Kaety Jacobson, who also serves on the Land Conservation and Development Commission, countered that many fire victims around the state are already setting up camp on their own in rural areas, and it’s better for the state to get rules set in place.

Commissioners unanimously approved the temporary rules, which expire in May. They also said they want to consider permanent rules next year for accommodating future disasters — including the threat posed by a massive earthquake along the Northwest’s Cascadia fault.

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