SALEM — Developers would be able to build in wetlands more cheaply and quickly if three bills in the Oregon Legislature are approved.
The legislation would reduce the amount of wetland mitigation required in some cases, streamline the permitting process and create a pilot program to create a local mitigation bank, the Statesman Journal reported Monday.
Backers say the bills will help address Oregon’s housing crisis and spur economic development.
“As much of our valley is wet and delineated as wetlands, we are at a disadvantage when trying to develop new housing, economic opportunity or industry,” Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber said during public testimony on the bills.
Opponents say the legislation threatens to undermine natural infrastructure that protects residents from floods and drought, helps provide clean air and water, and provides critical habitat for fish and wildlife.
Wetlands once covered 2.3 million acres in Oregon. Over the years, nearly a million acres have been lost to agricultural and urban development.
Oregon law requires people who want to fill wetlands in order to build to obtain a permit from the Oregon Department of State Lands.
Each permit requires an evaluation of efforts to reduce harm to aquatic resources, and of how unavoidable impacts will be offset. The state requires mitigation of those impacts at a ratio of between one and three acres of wetland restoration for every acre of impacted wetland, determined on a case-by-case basis.
Many projects also must navigate a parallel, federal permitting process. Those rules are hampering efforts to address Oregon’s growing housing crisis, cities and developers say.
House Bill 2796 would apply to so-called degraded wetlands, or those that already have been negatively altered by human activity.
Under the proposal, developers would be able to build “needed housing” on degraded wetlands under a general permit, rather than each project getting its own evaluation. And mitigation would be limited to no more than one acre of restored wetland for every four acres of degraded wetlands developed.
Needed housing is defined in Oregon law as meeting the need for housing within an urban growth boundary at price levels affordable to households with a variety of incomes, including, but not limited to, low income households.
Supporters, such as Nicholas Veroske of Sheridan, say current rules are exacting n “economic tragedy” upon communities.
Veroske has owned 12 acres of residential land, classified as wetland, since 1997, but is unable to develop it without paying $705,000 into a mitigation bank, he told lawmakers.
Wetlands exist in nearly all north Sheridan’s lands, he said, “destroying feasible development of those lands, making the lands virtually worthless and harming the community’s ability to create both housing and jobs.”
A coalition of eight environmental groups, including WaterWatch of Oregon, Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Audubon Society of Portland, is opposing the legislation.
“Any policy that broadly encourages developers to undermine natural infrastructure and place already vulnerable people in harm’s way is not acceptable,” the groups wrote to legislators. “The language of this bill essentially gives a free pass to developers while expecting the public to shoulder the near and long-term costs of inappropriate development.”
Two state agencies also weighed in, citing potential problems.
The bill would make it less certain that impacts to fish and wildlife habitat would be adequately considered and addressed, said Shannon Hurn, deputy director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It also would run afoul of federal law, which requires a no net loss wetland policy, or at least one-to-one mitigation of developed wetlands, said Bill Ryan, deputy director of the Oregon Department of State Lands.
And it could provide an incentive for developers to purposely degrade wetlands in order to qualify for reduced mitigation obligations, both Hurn and Ryan said.
House Bill 2436 directs the Oregon Department of State Lands to develop a proposal, to be considered by the Legislature next year, for the state to assume partial authority to administer certain wetland development permits under the Federal Clean Water Act.
Currently, developers must receive permits from both the state and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
The bill’s proponents say that’s duplicative and cumbersome.
“Partial assumption would have tremendous positive impacts on housing affordability, economic development and wetland and waterway protections,” Harrisburg city administrator Brian Latta said.
Mayors of Millersburg, Corvallis and Adair Village also testified in support of the bill, and it’s backed by the Department of State Lands.
But opponents say the bill would eliminate consultations under the Endangered Species Act and with Native American Tribes that are required under federal but not state rules.
“This bill does not appear to us to be streamlining but rather an elimination of critically important steps for ensuring compliance with federal environmental laws,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland.
House Bill 2438 allocates a yet-undermined amount of money to the Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments to come up with a plan for a local public wetland mitigation bank, to help developers comply with mitigation requirements.
The bill calls for the plan to be available a model for other local governments.
The House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use has recommended passage of all three bills.
All have been moved to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.