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Housing law from 2019 makes us less safe

The Sunday, Oct. 11, story in the Mail Tribune by Hal Bernton of the Seattle Times, entitled “How do you rebuild a safer community?” was on point following the fires of Sept. 8. Fire-strengthened structures must be a major goal of rebuilding.

Left out of the article, however, is that while our state Legislature and various towns and cities were struggling with what they perceive as a housing crisis, they passed legislation that puts our communities at even more risk.

Specifically, House Bill 2001, passed by the 2019 Legislature, while making every medium and large community more dense, makes the same communities exponentially less safe. Nothing in the bill makes housing more affordable, but it does endanger everyone. We should be demanding that the Oregon Legislature revisit and revise this piece of legislation.

How does a well-intentioned bill endanger everyone? By wittingly or unwittingly ignoring standard safety requirements. Land-use planning and fire prevention have been at loggerheads for decades and it isn’t getting better. In the past, streets were standardized to accommodate large fire vehicles entering, turning around and exiting without hindrance. That standard is perceived by land-use planners as an elite notion and wasteful of land that theoretically could handle many more residential units rather than “just” pavement.

House Bill 2001, sponsored by Rep. Pam Marsh and supported strongly by Sen. Jeff Golden, prohibits requiring an adequate transportation infrastructure for new development and will cause more cars to be parked on streets as a direct result of not requiring off-street parking, apparently in the quaint notion that people will not drive or have cars in the future.

Despite being warned of the danger, both our representatives pushed ahead with their support, in complete disregard of the obvious, as did a majority of their fellow House and Senate colleagues. It was an exercise in magical thinking.

Anyone who experienced the fire of Sept. 8 knows that our roads are already inadequate for any sort of reasonable evacuation. Talent Avenue, in particular, was a parking lot, with people streaming out of single-access roads onto the only way out.

In an attempt to address a perceived critical housing need, the requirement that any housing, critical or otherwise, must be safe has been overlooked. Those who dare to mention the “S” word are treated as pariahs who don’t want everyone to have a home. This runs from local government to Salem, along with the notion that ceiling sprinklers can handle any fire risk. Look how well that worked in the wildfire of Sept. 8.

Local control of land-use planning is disappearing with the passage of HB 2001 and others like it; with it is the loss of input from the public on matters of safety. A safety concern in Jackson County may not be the same as safety concerns elsewhere in the state, and a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work.

The Department of Land Conservation and Development is now writing statewide rules and will approve or disapprove all local government land-use plans and codes that do not meet the requirements of HB 2001. Fewer developments will be heard at public meetings since new rules put greater power in the hands of staff.

State Goal No. 1 — public participation — is gone in all but name, along with the benefit of local knowledge, which seems to be perceived now as a hindrance to greater density. With the loss of public involvement is the loss of concern for public safety.

Oregonians are guaranteed the right to safety in Section 1 of our State Constitution. Our state and local governments need to be reminded of that guarantee.

HB 2001 can be found here.

Transportation infrastructure not required: Section 3 (5)

No off-street parking required: Section 7 (5) (b) (B)

Mary Tsui lives in Talent.