County asks state for money to cover fire survivors’ rebuilding fees
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Jackson County is asking the Oregon Legislature for nearly $9.6 million to cover the planning and building fees that fire survivors face when they rebuild their destroyed homes and businesses.
Permit, planning and community development fees can cost $11,339 for a 2,500-square-foot house, according to data compiled by Jackson County staff.
Fees can cost $17,621 for a typical business and $2,533 for a new manufactured home, data show.
It will be up to state legislators to decide whether to fund the county’s request.
“It’s a reasonable ask. Let’s hope we get something from it,” said Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer.
In addition to money to cover fees, the county is asking for $710,000 to contract with outside workers to boost its ability to process building applications.
The goal is to create a faster permitting process that can turn around applications in five to seven days, said County Administrator Danny Jordan.
The Almeda fire, which tore from Ashland to the outskirts of Medford in September 2020, destroyed nearly 2,500 homes and more than 170 businesses.
The South Obenchain fire in rural northern Jackson County destroyed more than 30 homes plus more than 50 other structures, including outbuildings.
Jackson County was the hardest hit by September 2020 fires that destroyed more than 4,000 homes statewide. The fires were fueled by unusually hot weather, low humidity, prolonged drought and strong winds, resulting in the largest loss of homes from fire in Oregon history.
The state has already set aside $2 million for wildfire assistance grants to local jurisdictions, but Jackson County’s nearly $10.4 million request to cover fees and extra staffing dwarfs that pool of money.
“The $2 million is not going to go far — and we’re asking for a lot more than that,” said Jackson County Development Services Director Ted Zuk.
Unincorporated parts of Jackson County suffered about half of the building losses from the Almeda fire, with Phoenix and Talent making up most of the rest.
Talent is also asking the Oregon Legislature for millions of dollars to cover fees for those who are rebuilding, said Talent interim City Manager Jamie McLeod-Skinner.
“We’re trying to rebuild our whole community and keep bringing attention to the needs of our community,” she said. “If the Legislature can step up and cover the fees, we would be delighted to have that happen. We recognize a burden has fallen on people who had to flee for their lives.”
McLeod-Skinner said she has faith that state legislators who represent the Rogue Valley will advocate for the cities and the county.
“I just hope they can convince their colleagues,” she said.
The city of Phoenix is also working on a funding request to cover fees, but doesn’t know yet how much it will seek or how much of a waiver it can offer to fire survivors, said Phoenix Community and Economic Development Director Joe Slaughter.
The rebuilding fees come as a hard pill to swallow for homeowners who already paid the fees once when they initially purchased their houses. Along with labor, materials and other costs, fees are part of the price of building a home.
Fee waivers would provide some relief to fire survivors. Many don’t have insurance to cover the full cost of building a new home, and the price of construction materials has skyrocketed in the past six months, said Builders Association Southern Oregon Executive Officer Brad Bennington.
“I agree with the county that it’s not fair to ask someone to pay fees when it’s not their fault that their home was destroyed by fire. If there is relief available from the state, that would be a good and reasonable thing,” he said.
Bennington said city and county planning departments are funded through fees, so they need some source of money to cover the work they do.
He said not only did thousands of people lose their homes, but hundreds of millions of dollars of property was wiped off the tax rolls in a matter of days.
A wide range of jurisdictions are losing property tax revenue that supports key services such as schools, libraries, law enforcement and fire protection.
“Aside from relieving human suffering ― a lot of people lost their homes and all their belongings ― there’s an economic reason to rebuild as soon as we can,” Bennington said.