Elected officials and staff in Clatsop County seem to agree on two things: housing and emergency preparedness are the major issues, and political will is the key to address them.
Roughly 40 officials gathered Tuesday, May 17, at McMenamin’s Gearhart Hotel and Sand Trap Pub to discuss the challenges facing the county, the second time in the past year or so that city and county leaders have met to talk through policy concerns.
County Community Development Director Heather Hansen said the county is aware anecdotally of discrepancies between wage levels and the location, availability and cost of housing and its impact on business retention, expansion and recruitment. The problem: the county is unsure of any solution because there isn’t enough data to support the anecdotal evidence.
Officials discussed a recent six-month, $100,000 study by Tillamook County, which Hansen said is in a similar situation to Clatsop, that identified specific data about the area’s housing markets and possible solutions.
The report differentiated between coastal and inland markets and highlighted factors such as a low-wage economy, scarce land supply and absentee landlords. Ten possible solutions included creating a countywide housing coordinator position in the county and rezoning.
Attendees appeared enthused. “Let’s just steal this,” Seaside Mayor Jay Barber quipped.
Barber used the Seaside City Council’s vote next week about rezoning a plot of land on North Wahanna Road for a possible 40-unit affordable housing project as an example of the need for political will. He said the council likely will vote in favor of rezoning.
“Every time you rezone or up-zone where single-family dwellings are, you’re going to face lots of opposition,” Barber said.
Newly appointed Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer raised issues specific to Clatsop County that he said should be considered in any future housing study: transportation, impact on the culture and how it fits in with emergency management.
Astoria Mayor Arline LaMear said she supported the idea of hiring a county housing coordinator, though County Manager Cameron Moore argued that a coordinator would need to receive specific directions.
“Having a housing coordinator without a plan probably isn’t the best use of resources,” he said.
County Emergency Manager Tiffany Brown said her office’s responsibilities have increased in the past five years as the county has poured funds into the department for major disaster preparedness.
Brown said future projects the county will work on will include establishing contingency fuel reserves, continuity of government planning, seismic resilience planning and removal of debris that would wash ashore in a significant seismic event.
Balensifer added that plans should include how to establish open areas to allow for air assistance to land with necessary supplies.
Clatsop County Board of Commissioners Chairman Scott Lee said the county is much further ahead in emergency preparedness planning than it is with housing, saying officials will need to make tough, often unpopular decisions to solve the housing issue.
While the housing situation could solve itself through market forces, emergency preparedness should be at the forefront of elected officials’ minds, Gearhart City Councilor Dan Jesse said.
“If we have a major event, we’re not going to care whether we solve the affordable housing problem or not,” he said. “We’re all going to be wishing we had prepared better for the catastrophic event we’re going to encounter. No one is going to solve this problem but ourselves.”
Cemetery and parks
Mayor LaMear noted that Astoria will be looking into establishing cemetery and park districts. She cited a recent study that revealed 70 percent of park users live outside the city and said Astoria is still struggling with upkeep at Ocean View Cemetery in Warrenton.
“It’s a matter of trying to maintain the cemetery to the standards that it should be maintained,” she said.
In the final moments of the evening, officials recognized the 50th anniversary of the Oregon Beach Bill, which preserved public access to the state’s beaches and was passed largely through the efforts of former Gov. Tom McCall. Lee capped the discussion of the anniversary with one last reference to the night’s oft-mentioned theme: “That’s the political will we need.”