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Burned by red tape

Carol and Fredric Berger’s house was destroyed by the Almeda fire six months ago, and now they feel burned again by a bureaucracy that blocks them from rebuilding.

The couple, in their 70s, have paid to have their lot cleared and the soil tested, and they submitted applications to the city for permits to rebuild their Talent house along Wagner Creek, a short distance from downtown.

When the contractor prepared to start building, everything came to a grinding halt because the Federal Emergency Management Agency told the city a house couldn’t be built within 35 feet of the floodway and just off Highway 99.

“We are in danger of losing this piece of paradise that we have lost,” Carol said.

Two weeks ago, she said, she got a notice from the city that “things have changed, and you are not allowed to put a structure of any kind on your property. FEMA has determined there will be no variances, or grandfathered exceptions.”

They appealed to Talent City Council last week and hope that city officials will figure something out this week.

“The City Council said stop while they review the codes,” she said. “FEMA said, ‘Absolutely no.’”

The Bergers had remodeled their house a month before the Almeda fire, and they are working with the same contractor to build an 1,800-square-foot, four-bedroom house that would be identical to the one they lost.

Their house even had a small suite in of one of the bedrooms so they could have a caretaker move in if health problems get worse for them. Fredric has multiple sclerosis, and he’s supposed to avoid stress because it affects his health.

“The fire itself was traumatic,” he said. “The fire was flight or fright.”

His wife had the presence of mind to pack up some of their belongings, and even went back for a second trip to get more of their stuff as the flames advanced.

She was able to salvage her mother’s paintings and quickly videoed the contents of each room to show the insurance company.

“We never got the notice to evacuate,” Fredric said.

The couple, temporarily living in a rental in Ashland, say they’ve supported efforts to rehabilitate Wagner Creek over their 17 years in the house. They’ve consulted with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to plant native vegetation, all of which burned Sept. 8, 2020.

“We consider ourselves environmentalists,” Frederic said.

The Bergers submitted their building plans to the city for approval Dec. 27, 2020. They can see many other houses in various stages of reconstruction nearby.

Jamie McLeod-Skinner, interim city manager, said, “I totally understand their frustration. We’re doing everything we can to address it.”

The stumbling block is FEMA, and up to 10 properties in Talent face similar floodway dilemmas, McLeod-Skinner said.

“They’re holding the hammer above our head,” she said.

She said if the city went ahead and approved the building permit for the Bergers’ and other properties, FEMA could increase the flood insurance for all residents of the city.

She said the city is still trying to determine how far back the Bergers’ home is from the floodway.

The city, which lost 700 homes to the fire, has been processing 50 permit applications a month, far more than the three a month before the fire.

McLeod-Skinner said she told FEMA officials that the dilemma faced by the Bergers is one of the reasons why people develop a strong distaste for government bureaucracy.

“This is a classic example of bureaucracy being in the way,” McLeod-Skinner said.

She’s hopeful that various behind-the-scenes efforts will find a solution to the problem in the next few days.

“I’m optimistic,” she said. “I’ve almost got a chip on my shoulder about all this. I want them to rebuild as they were before.”

Zac Moody, Talent’s former community development director, sent the city his opinion about the floodway issue March 4.

Moody, who is now with Pacific Geographic Consultants Inc., said it’s his opinion that the city can approve the replacement of an existing structure. He also represents another property that has similar floodplain issues.

The city has “yet to make a decision on a floodplain review application that I currently have that is in a similar situation,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneFrederic and Carol Berger say they cannot rebuild their home that was destroyed in the Almeda fire because it is within 35 feet of the floodway.