COOS BAY — Rep. Peter DeFazio (D- 4th Dist.) hosted a roundtable with local community leaders Friday to discuss what he says could be potentially devastating impacts that proposed restrictive floodplain regulations could have on economic growth in the city.
The restrictions trace back to two federal agencies: the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
DeFazio said he held the discussion to alert people about the potential magnitude of the problems that NMFS recommendations will create.
“This is a really big deal that virtually no one is aware of,” DeFazio said.
In April, NMFS told FEMA that it needed to change its implementation of its flood insurance program in order to better protect salmon and steelhead. The fisheries service issued recommendations that would restrict development in high-risk flood areas.
After the government agency released the recommendations, DeFazio said he and other delegates were concerned.
“We didn’t see their final proposal until this spring,” DeFazio said, “That’s when we went from being concerned to ringing the alarm.”
In a letter to the Environment Protection Agency, former NMFS Regional Director William Stelle wrote that FEMA’s flood program is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of 16 ESA listed fish species and Southern Resident killer whales.
This issue goes back years.
In 2009, FEMA was sued by several Oregon environmental groups over violations of the Endangered Species Act. The suit argued that FEMA failed to consider its floodplain insurance plan’s effect on protected salmon and steelhead by fostering development in high-risk flood areas.
As part of the settlement, FEMA agreed to collaborate with NMFS. The fisheries service is responsible for protecting migrating fish under the Endangered Species Act.
Floodplains are areas along rivers, stream and shorelines that are regularly inundated with water. That distinction applies to a lot of Coos County. The National Flood Insurance Program identified 251 communities in Oregon as flood-prone, commonly known as a 100-year flood area.
The insurance program provides low-cost federally subsidized flood insurance to cover risks incurred in flood-prone areas. Without the insurance plan, many banks and lenders wouldn’t finance home building or development.
NMFS issued recommendations which would require property owners to mitigate any lost salmon habitat with new habitat.
Michael Millstein, a spokesman for NMFS, said the recommendations are designed to have some flexibility.
“Communities in floodplain can continue to have economic development as long as they’re not increasing impact on the fish,” he said.
DeFazio doesn’t see it that way.
He said the plan is massive overreach by NMFS and forces another federal agency, FEMA, to implement it.
“They’re going to absolutely absurd lengths,” DeFazio said, “It’s hard to believe that the downtown area of Coos Bay is somehow defined as critical salmon habitat and prohibited from future development.”
He said NMFS is frequently an obstacle.
“They’re claiming impacts that are dubious at best in many cases,” DeFazio said. “They’ve got a thin reed and they’re trying to turn that into a baseball bat.”
The fisheries service spokesman said FEMA isn’t required to follow its recommendations.
“It’s a recommendation to FEMA. It’s up to them whether they want to follow our recommendations or they could come up with a different approach,” Millstein said.
He said the point of the recommendations isn’t to halt development.
“The RPA (NMFS’s recommendations) is not trying to turn back the clock,” Millstein said, “A lot of people have the impression that it’s a complete moratorium, but that’s not the case.”
DeFazio said if FEMA implements NMFS’s recommendations, its setting itself up for lawsuits.
Part of the plan requires FEMA to come up with new floodplain maps, because some of the maps being used are decades old. DeFazio said the way some of the maps used to be drawn were rudimentary at best.
“Somebody would find a farmer and say ‘how deep was the water during the last flood?” DeFazio said.
At the roundtable, Coos County Commissioner Melissa Cribbins expressed several concerns over new maps and impacts on other lands.
She said the county doesn’t have the staffing to deal with a new level of review. She also said the planning department is concerned that they could be subject to fines because of changes in landowner’s property values.
“If we have to eliminate a lot of lands that historically have been built upon, or been approved to be built upon then that will put pressure on other lands, resource lands,” Cribbins said, “It forces us to make a choice of what we’re going to protect in Oregon.”
During the same discussion, City Manager Roger Craddock said Coos Bay is concerned about oversight and reasonable mitigation.
“We’re trying to claw ourselves out and provide a diverse economy which includes redevelopment of formerly industrial sites from days gone by,” something Craddock thinks won't be possible under the guidelines.
Having several Coos Bay representatives involved in a discussion about the issue is part of DeFazio’s push to get more people involved to help halt the potential restrictions.
“One would think that this would go through a public process, as opposed to a closed-door talks between two agencies,” DeFazio said.
Millstein said the opposing groups should be able to compromise.
“Our view is that those are not mutually exclusive,” Millstein said, “There can be a middle ground.”
For DeFazio, the situation is nothing but chaos.
“To me, this is going to destroy our comprehensive land use plans,” the representative said, “If all the floodplain was pristine and undeveloped this might make sense, but when you’re talking about areas that have been developed for 100 years it doesn’t make sense.”