If a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami struck the North Coast today, the Lewis and Clark Rural Fire Department would be almost entirely incapacitated.
The department’s main fire station at 34571 U.S. Highway 101 Business — one of two in the small, unincorporated community — is located less than a mile away from the Lewis and Clark River and well within the tsunami inundation zone.
In response, the department has eyed a plot on an 85-acre property southeast of Lyngstad Heights for nearly two years. But the property is the subject of a 12-year legal battle over development.
“We’re basically going to lose our apparatus; we’re going to lose our equipment,” said Gus Fennerty, a Lewis and Clark Rural Fire Protection District director. “We are not going to have the capability of responding to the emergencies that are bound to come up from a serious earthquake.”
The proposed new location sits in an elevated area roughly a mile away from the inundation zone. It is also centrally located near other critical infrastructure outside of flood areas — Lewis and Clark Elementary School, a number of potential houses, a water reservoir, sewer access and Pacific Power’s substation.
“Our equipment would be safe, our emergency supplies would be safe. If somebody had an emergency route, they’d be able to respond to it, which we wouldn’t be able to do if the fire station was under 8 feet of water here,” Fennerty said at an October meeting at the current station. “It’s kind of a no-brainer from our point of view to find a place we can operate from, in comparison to a place that is going to be destroyed.”
But the department will need to officially secure the location before it can apply for grants.
Multiple court challenges
The new station would occupy roughly 2 acres owned by Gary Aspmo, of Astoria, and his family.
In 2005, Aspmo received a waiver to move forward with a 30-lot housing development. The waiver was based on Measure 37, approved by Oregon voters in 2004 to allow property owners to claim compensation for reduced property value as a result of environmental or land use regulations.
Voters largely repealed it, though, in 2007 by passing Measure 49. That measure eventually forced Aspmo to seek permission from the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners for a Measure 49 vesting. Commissioners approved the vesting in January 2016, offering a nod for development, but limiting the number of housing lots to 15.
Throughout the process, the development has been challenged multiple times in court by the state Department of Land Conservation and Development and the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition — a nonprofit that seeks to preserve land on the coast.
Aspmo, in an email to state officials in 2016, said he would lose money on his more than $500,000 investment if he is not allowed to sell at least 15 lots, plus one for the fire department.
“I’m in it so deep now, I’m trying to get myself out of it,” Aspmo said at the October meeting.
But the state and the conservation coalition have argued that the county did not have the legal right to alter the number of lots and that Aspmo is only entitled to build on a maximum of three lots.
“We are very in favor of development and developing in the cities, but outside of the cities, that’s where the conservation comes in,” state Land Conservation and Development Manager Matthew Crall said.
The state Court of Appeals is the latest to hear the case, which was dismissed by Clatsop County Circuit Court Judge Cindee Matyas in March.
Since the legally awkward transition between the two ballot measures, the state has challenged a number of similar cases, and the Aspmos’ development plans represent the final part of the fallout.
“It would have never been allowed prior to the Measure 37 ruling,” Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition Executive Director Phillip Johnson said. “They’re trying to do something wrong because forestlands should remain forestlands, but the issue gets down to whether you have vested rights.”
Both Johnson and Crall said the fire department’s relocation is unrelated to their legal arguments in the ongoing court case.
County exemption needed
Aspmo’s most recent solution came soon after the county commissioners’ ruling last year. He reached out to the fire department to gauge its interest in developing on the property, which turned out to be strong.
The department’s move there may be a basis for arguing that the land could be legally switched from forestry to residential agricultural, which would require an exception from the county.
“The bar for rezoning is set very, very high because the state is committed to preserving resource lands, agriculture and forestlands and so on,” County Planning Manager Will Caplinger said, adding that an argument involving the fire station could also be tricky.
“You need to demonstrate that there’s no other location in the county that can accommodate this kind of a use,” Caplinger said. “That’s very, very tough to do.”
After Aspmo submits a lengthy application to the county planning department, a monthslong review will require approval from the county Planning Commission and Board of Commissioners.
Since very little land is available that is centrally located and not in a designated tsunami zone, the fire department hopes development will be allowed, Fire Chief Jeff Golightly wrote in a May 2016 email to conservation coalition Director Jim Rue.
“If the state is truly concerned with mitigation of potential tsunami damage, we hope you will reconsider your opposition to this development,” Golightly wrote.
But whether development will be allowed even after the county’s process is still unclear.
“We will be scrutinizing that with a gimlet eye,” Johnson said.