SALEM — Commissioners and staff from Linn and Marion counties will work together to expedite the rebuilding of 700 to 800 homes and other structures destroyed by fires last week in the Santiam Canyon.
Thursday afternoon, commissioners from both counties met at the Marion County Board of Commissioners’ meeting room or participated by telephone.
Numerous staff members from both counties also participated on-site or by phone.
“The people who live in the canyon are passionate about where they live, and emotions are running high about these fires and the damage they caused,” Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist said.
Nyquist noted that Sen. Ron Wyden said this week the smoke suffocating the West Coast is “debt coming due on lousy forest management.”
“Well, that’s a high price to pay for those who lost their homes,” Nyquist said. “It’s a lot more than foul air for them.”
Nyquist encouraged commissioners from both counties to ask the governor to enact an executive order that would allow Linn and Marion counties to make final land use decisions concerning reconstruction in the affected communities for two years.
Nyquist said the state’s land use laws have had positive results in many cases, but they can also entrap people into months or years of legal wrangling. He said families who were burned out last week need to be able to make decisions as quickly as possible.
“We need to take swift, decisive actions so the people in the Santiam Canyon have hope,” Nyquist said.
Nyquist also encouraged the commissioners to seek statutory permission to waive property taxes for one year for those who lost their homes.
Property tax statements will be mailed in mid-November, so movement on this issue must be immediate, Nyquist said.
Nyquist also said both counties must act to ensure the health of the North Santiam River, especially with winter rains approaching.
“There is a pristine nature about the canyon area that we need to protect,” Nyquist said. “We need to act now or the damage could be forever.”
Environmental contractors are already being solicited, Nyquist was told, including those who can provide hydroseeding or siltation barriers on burned-over properties near the river.
Marion County Economic Director Jason Schneider said staff from area agencies have already met to begin outlining key issues in developing a long-term canyon recovery plan.
Primary concerns include: safety issues, common needs, common land use and permitting processes, mapping and data sharing, environmental issues and utility easements.
Compounding reconstruction issues is the fact that many homes and other structures in the canyon are non-conforming, meaning they were constructed before the state’s land use laws were enacted.
Technically, they would have to be rebuilt based on current planning and building codes.
Schneider said that when Grant County had a disaster, homeowners were allowed to rebuild based on building codes from the year 2000 if their previous home was built before then and remained no larger than the original footprint. Anything built after 2000 would have to meet current building codes.
Removing debris from the ravaged homes — many of which are old enough to have lead paint and asbestos insulation — will require much consideration and working with environmental agencies and managers at Coffin Butte Landfill, meeting participants agreed.
It is possible an overall survey of the types of materials at the sites could be made, rather than a house-by-house environmental survey, which could take months to complete.
Developing a common internet portal where property owners could get reliable information about what they can and cannot do is also vital, Schneider said.
Waivers concerning how long property owners can live in temporary structures such as camping trailers or RVs while they are rebuilding may also be necessary, participants agreed.
Linn County will develop a letter to be signed by commissioners from both counties asking the governor to sign an executive order naming Linn and Marion county commissioners as the final arbiters on all permit activity related to rebuilding in the Santiam Canyon, which straddles the border between the two counties.
Marion County officials will develop a letter asking the governor to convene a special session of the Legislature to consider waiving property taxes on homes destroyed by the fires for one year.
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