Preparedness

Portland, Ore., Fire Bureau Won't Enforce Earthquake Warning Ordinance

'No one is interested in putting our residents at risk, but we need to look at ways to better support businesses and non-profits in seismically upgrading their buildings.'

by Elliot Njus, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. / February 1, 2019

(TNS) - The Portland, Ore., Fire Bureau won’t enforce a city ordinance requiring earthquake warning signs on vulnerable brick buildings when it takes effect in March.

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty on Thursday directed the Fire Bureau, which she oversees, to indefinitely delay enforcement of the placard ordinance. Meanwhile, she asked the Bureau of Emergency Management, also part of Hardesty’s portfolio, to lead work sessions on the issue and investigate financial incentives for seismic upgrades.

“No one is interested in putting our residents at risk, but we need to look at ways to better support businesses and non-profits in seismically upgrading their buildings,” Hardesty said in a statement. “A placard is a band-aid for a much larger problem. Until we have better support in place, especially in the form of funding assistance for these projects, I want placarding enforcement on hold for businesses and non-profit organizations.”

The Fire Bureau, however, shares enforcement authority with the Bureau of Development Services, overseen by Mayor Ted Wheeler. A spokesman for that bureau did not immediately return a phone call, and a spokeswoman for Wheeler, who oversees the bureau, said she wasn’t aware of Hardesty’s directive when reached shortly after it was announced.

Hardesty took office this month and wasn’t on the City Council when it approved the ordinance in October. She replaced the retiring Dan Saltzman, a vocal proponent of both the placarding ordinance and a more aggressive approach to requiring building owners to complete seismic upgrades.

The ordinance would require owners of brick and similar buildings to prominently post signs with the disclosure: “This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake.”

The same warning must be distributed to tenants of the building under the rule, which was set to take effect for most of the buildings in March.

The ordinance had attracted a lawsuit from the Masonry Building Owners of Oregon, a nonprofit coalition of brick building owners, as well as developer John Beardsley’s company and building owner Jim Atwood. The plaintiffs argued the sign ordinance violated their First Amendment right to free speech. They’re seeking an injunction before the rule begins and a hearing in that case is set for Feb. 26.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also opposed the ordinance, saying it would reinforce gentrification in historically black segments of North and Northeast Portland. And they were joined in a rally against the ordinance by owners of music venues that aren’t seismically upgraded.

The lawsuit isn’t affected by Thursday’s announcement, said John DiLorenzo, the attorney for the plaintiffs, in part because there’s no indication the Bureau of Development Services would suspend enforcement. DiLorenzo had previously asked city attorneys to suspend enforcement.

“The Fire Bureau has really a limited role here,” DilLorenzo said.

-- Elliot Njus

enjus@oregonian.com; 503-294-5034; @enjus

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©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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