The beginning of the end is how many Tillamook County officials see the impact new environmental standards will have on area farmers, businesses, residents and public entities.
By Ann Powers
“I am so not a doomsday person,” Bryan Pohl, Tillamook County Community
Development director, said of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Biological Opinion (BiOp). “But, this is really the first time in my… 13-year career that I actually feel it could be doomsday.”
As it’s currently written, the BiOp directs the FEMA National Floodplain Insurance Program (NFIP) to impose severe restrictions and bans on future development and redevelopment (or repair) in floodplains statewide to protect fish habitat (salmon and steelhead). In Tillamook County, communities like Nehalem, Tillamook, Pacific City and more exist within these highly restricted areas and would be severely impacted.
The Birth of BiOp
“This didn’t happen through Congress getting together and saying we want to protect endangered species, so we’re going to put this stuff in NFIP, ” Pohl explained. “This happened from a lawsuit and a judge handing down a ruling – basically.”
Pohl said litigation in both Washington (state) and Oregon dating back more than 10 years paved the way for the current BiOp released April 14, 2016.
The most recent litigation occurred when the Audubon Society of Portland, and other groups on behalf of NMFS, sued FEMA NFIP in Oregon for not providing adequate protection for fish habitat.
A settlement was negotiated directing NMFS to develop the biological opinion and consult with FEMA – that tasked NFIP with its implementation.
A Flood of Frustrations
“I don’t feel confident that the people pulling the strings are going to have much recognition of rural counties and the burden this places on rural counties” Pohl said.
Officials fear the BiOp could quash a majority of development options, and destroy property value, for numerous public and private landowners and developers.
“This is amazingly bad,” County Commissioner Tim Josi said at an Aug. 31 BiOp workshop. “They’re going to shut us down.”
For example, the BiOp calls for a riparian buffer zone (RBZ) of 170 feet from each side of a watercourse measured from the high water mark of perennial or intermittent streams. A riparian area is the interface between land and a river or stream.
Development would be prohibited, along with restrictions on improvement of existing structures, within this zone.
For the remaining floodplain outside the RBZ, development and improvements would require mitigation for all adverse effects to floodplain functions. That means landowners would be required to build new fish habitat in the same water body in an amount greater than the development in various ratios.
Furthermore, using fill to elevate structures would be drastically restricted and entirely eliminated in some cases. Property owners may also be required to reduce the footprint of new structures to 10 percent of the total lot size for both residential and commercial development.
In a guest column published in the Pacific City Sun, David Yamamoto (county commission hopeful and area realtor) wrote:
“Our dairies are, more often than not, built on floodplains. Over the years, farm structures… have been raised with fill to keep them out of floodwaters. This will no longer be allowed. Our dairies today are fewer in number, but the size of the herds each possesses are increasing. This creates a situation where our farmers need to expand or add additional structures to accommodate larger herds. This BiOp will have a very detrimental effect on our dairy industry.”
Negotiating with NFIP
NFIP specialist Scott Van Hoff said FEMA understands the concerns and there is room for compromise.
“I certainly see the potential for significant economic impact,” he said. “That leads me to believe that full implementation might look a lot different.”
NFIP has been tasked with putting some interim BiOp measures in place by March 15, 2018. Van Hoff said complete implementation could take six-to-eight years, leaving time to negotiate what the opinion calls “Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives.”
“It’s one thing to say stop harming fish and another thing to mapping out how to do that,” Van Hoff emphasized. “We’re given the roadmap and now we need to figure out the nuts and bolts on how to make it work. You do have some flexibility of being able to mitigate for the loss of habitat… can you leave your development site better than you found it?”
Yamamota and others suggested developing a ‘mitigation bank’ where Tillamook County would earn credit for environmental and habitat-friendly initiatives already implemented by farmers, watershed councils and the Tillamook Soil and Water Conservation District.
“We are so far ahead of everyone else, but we’re lumped into this one-size-fits-all BiOp proposal,” Yamamota told the Headlight Herald. “We’ve been working for decades to clean our water, restore fish habitat and we’re just not getting credit for this.”
Regardless if negotiations ever come to fruition, the county must adhere to the BiOp or get kicked out of NFIP, Pohl said.
“The problem with dropping out of the NFIP is that homeowners can’t get flood insurance policies,” he noted, adding that private flood insurance may be difficult to get and cost prohibitive. “And, (if) we have a major storm like we did in December, we don’t get assistance dollars.”
Moreover, Pohl said opting out of the NFIP would not release the county from similar standards under the Endangered Species Act.
County officials cautioned there’s no chance of stopping the measure; only slowing it down, working hard to negotiate some of its requirements and possibly filing lawsuits once negative impacts from the restrictions take their toll on individuals and communities.
The said “next steps” include forming work committees and educating the public about what’s coming down the pike in terms of the area’s future.
“Sooner or later it’s going to happen,” County Commissioner Mark Labhart said at the recent workshop. “And that’s what scares me.”
For more information on the BiOp, visit http://www.oregon.gov/LCD/Pages/NFIP_BiOp.aspx.