Kate Brown struck secret deal with Oregon homebuilders over wildfire codes, lobbyists say on tape

21 October 2020

Published by https://www.streetroots.org/

USA – In recordings obtained by Street Roots, industry leaders say the governor agreed to keep mandated wildfire safety codes for new homes out of legislation

Building standards that could make homes safer and more fire-resistant in wildfires are not mandated for residential construction in Oregon’s fire-prone areas. With more new homes built in the wildland-urban interface than in other parts of the state, mandating these standards could help lessen the devastation of fires like those that swept through the state in September, saving Oregonians’ homes and lives.

But, if what building industry leaders and lobbyists have alleged during private meetings is true, Oregon won’t see any such requirements anytime soon — due to an agreement between the industry and Gov. Kate Brown.

After the state’s homebuilders lobby tried, but failed, to block regulations allowing local governments to implement their own wildfire safety standards in new construction, it’s now relying on a secret agreement with the Oregon governor to ensure those standards aren’t mandated statewide in fire-prone regions.

Street Roots obtained secretly made recordings of this agreement being discussed at high-level meetings between Portland and Oregon Home Builders Association board members and top lobbyists. The audio provides a rare window into how one of the state’s most influential industries holds sway over critical public policy issues through lobbying, revolving doors and easy access to influential lawmakers.

Efforts by Oregon Home Builders Association — long aided by Mark Long, a top state regulator who now works as the organization’s head lobbyist — mirror national and statewide industry campaigns to stymie innovations and standards that would make homes across the country safer, more environmentally sustainable and better equipped to survive disasters.

During closed-door conversations among industry lobbyists earlier this year, Long described his political strategy:

“I wouldn’t say this in public, but it was always my goal, since I always operated politics in the old-school way — in each of the boards, I wanted to have a majority coalition from an industry I could work through,” Long is heard saying.

Mark Long on his political strategy at a meeting among lobbyists earlier this year.

Long continued by describing how he took advantage of preemption laws that limit local jurisdictions from diverging significantly from state standards, in order to “slow down the activities of the Portlands and Eugenes of the world,” he said.

“We were set up to where the (Oregon Home Builders Association) would have four if not five votes on a nine-person board,” Long explained. “That way, the HBA working with the industry could drive what these changes were.”

He told the room his “building codes perspective” was, in part, to ask: “How do we kind of tamp down or slow down the pace of regulation in those areas where we see the greatest expansion going to be going down?”

Mark Long on his efforts to slow regulations when heading the Oregon Building Codes Division. Street Roots cut an identifying sentence from this audio clip to protect our source.

In 20 years, hotter temperatures combined with more frequent drought will place Oregon at the national epicenter of risk for fires that burn more than 12,000 acres, according to peer-reviewed research published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire and an analysis by ProPublica.

Oregon lags behind states like California and Colorado, whose leaders mandated ignition-resistant construction methods in wildfire hazard zones more than a decade ago.

These methods include building with fire-resistant building materials for roofing and siding, and ventilation systems that prevent embers from coming inside the home, among other modifications.

“These are great standards; they work,” senior engineer Robert Raymer of the California Building Industry Association told the told The Associated Press last year.

A 2018 study by Headwaters Economics found the added costs for homes to be built to common fire hardening standards are “roughly the same cost as a typical home. … City, county, and state governments must weigh many issues when considering new regulations, but the cost of constructing to comply with wildfire-resistant building codes need not be a barrier.”

Action on building codes is one of the highest-priority recommendations to come out of a wildfire response council convened by Brown last year. But the council stopped short of making explicit recommendations, instead opting to provide a range of “more active” and “less active” policy options.

While some council members balked at what they saw as an infringement of property rights, others raised concerns that incentive-driven approaches would create disparities going forward.

“When we think about policies that are all about the incentives, those who get left behind are our most vulnerable populations, people of color,” said Oregon Health Authority representative Kirsten Aird during a Sept. 26 council meeting. “When we start to get into property rights, you’re talking about people who have at least enough money to own something.”

Protecting communities from fires also requires measures to provide a protective buffer clear of brush and vegetation, also known as “defensible space.”

Like other environmental impacts, wildfires disproportionately affect marginalized communities, who have limited access to safe and affordable housing.

“Close to 40% of our population are renters, who do not have the ability to own something, nor have the ability, in some cases by statute, to be able to adjust structures to become defensible, nor to choose structures that are defensible,” said Katrina Holland, former executive director of Community Alliance of Tenants.

After the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history swept through the town of Paradise in 2018, an analysis found that over half of the homes built to ignition-resistant standards survived undamaged, compared to fewer than 1 in 5 homes built prior to 2008.

State and local officials determine the rules for how residential and commercial structures can be built. Those standards are usually based on model codes published by the International Code Council, a nonprofit organization that researches and promulgates national standards.

Last year, The New York Times revealed a secret deal between the National Association of Home Builders and that council, allowing industry representatives to block changes that would lessen the climate impacts of new homes and improve their endurance of disasters.

Following a 2017 home fire in Riddle, Ore., which claimed the lives of five children and one of their parents, a former chair of the Oregon Fire Sprinkler Coalition, Shawn Olson, said their deaths might have been avoided.

“I would hope that one day, the millions of dollars and the energy fighting fire sprinklers in new homes could be focused on educating and finding solutions that work for everyone,” Olson told the National Fire Protection Association.

Fire departments, sprinkler makers and scientists have argued for years that including fire sprinklers in homes saves lives, and their inclusion has been part of nationally recommended standards since 2009.

A 2018 ProPublica investigation found that the residential construction industry has spent millions of dollars across 25 states in the past decade successfully fighting efforts to require sprinklers in new homes, with the help of sympathetic governors and committees stacked with homebuilders’ allies — a strategy mirrorring what Long was heard describing to his fellow lobbyists.

Since 2015, Oregon Home Builders Association has reported $468,698 in lobbying expenditures, according to state records.

As the state reckons with rebuilding an estimated 4,000 homes lost to fires this year, it will also have to address its position as a destination for people from the southern half of the country who will be displaced by the impacts of the climate crisis in the next half-century — an estimated 1 in 12 Americans over the next 45 years, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

Oregon currently has the worst housing supply shortage in the nation, according to a report from national mortgage insurer Freddie Mac. That shortage becomes more pronounced when taking into account migration patterns within the U.S. influenced by economic pressures like high housing costs and job scarcity.

For the past three decades, more than 60% of new homes in California, Oregon and Washington were built in areas where houses meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland vegetation, commonly known as the wildland-urban interface, or WUI.

But what really worries Oregon State Fire Marshal Jim Walker are the hundreds of thousands of homes that have already been built.

A decade ago, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities estimated more than 1 in 3 Oregonians — over 1.2 million people — lived in communities and areas at high risk of wildfire.

Oregon Department of Forestry’s most recent estimate found 750,000 homes located in the WUI.

“What do we do with those homes that are currently out there,” Walker asked fellow members of the Governor’s Wildfire Council last year. “And how do we come up with a funding source to help those folks that are low-income or in difficult demographics, to be able to then implement some of these changes?”

Long’s last major effort to influence the direction of home construction in Oregon included stalling efforts from fire officials in southern Oregon who wanted to introduce wildfire safety standards in new homes built in wildfire hazard areas. He also implemented a policy change to limit public input into proposed revisions to the state’s residential building codes.

Nearly three years after firefighters and state and local fire marshals’ officials proposed voluntary safety standards based on California’s, Medford became the first city in Oregon to adopt requirements for ignition-resistant building materials in designated wildfire hazard zones.

According to private discussions at an Oregon Home Builders Association board meeting earlier this year, the provisions only received the industry’s blessing after the governor’s office agreed to a deal with its former CEO, Jodi Hack.

“I thought Jodi kind of made a deal with Kate (Brown) that she wasn’t going to do it legislatively if we accommodated it at a lower level,” a board member can be heard saying on one of the audio recordings Street Roots obtained.

“I think the agreement still stands,” said senior Oregon Home Builders Association lobbyist Ellen Miller, who noted that proposed legislation from Brown only mentioned technical assistance for cities to consider adoption of the building code.

At an Oregon Home Builders Association board meeting earlier this year.

Hack, now a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist based in Seattle, denied the existence of any agreement between herself and Brown.

“There were NO deals cut or made with the Governor’s Office at any time regarding wildfire mitigation,” Hack said in an email after being provided partial transcripts of the board meeting recordings.

Reached over the phone, Long denied knowledge of any deal between Brown and his predecessor.

“I haven’t heard anything about that,” Long said. “I don’t know where that would have come from.”

Brown’s spokesperson, Charles Boyle, said he could find “no information on any such agreement,” over email.

When the same unidentified board member expressed concern over whether Sen. Jeff Golden (D-Ashland), the chair of key environmental and wildfire committees, had been pushing for updated building codes, longtime Oregon Home Builders Association lobbyist Scott Barrie responded: “No … we have met with him enough times now that he understands.”

Barrie and Miller also discussed Long’s replacement at the Building Codes Division.

“So we learned recently that (Lori Graham) has been appointed or put in place, and it’s someone that Mark Long had hired and brought to state government,” Miller said. “So we’re positive that he has a good relationship.”

In an email to Long a month earlier, former Department of Consumer and Business Services Director Lou Savage pushed back on a request for Long to name a successor.

“Given that we want the recruitment to be open and competitive, our inclination is to have an interim (administrator) who is not currently in BCD,” Savage wrote in a Dec. 27 email to Long. “It’s a cleaner hiring process and will send a message to anyone outside — or inside — the agency that no one has the inside track.”

“I understand that perspective and approach and want you to know I have used a variety of approaches in a variety of positions over the years,” Long responded. “Each approach has pluses and minus and leads to particular outcomes. My hope is to share with you … several perspectives to consider so that you have information to weigh.”

For years, former Medford Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Greg Kleinberg has been telling anyone who would listen about the need to better protect homes in regions vulnerable to wildfires. In a profile last year, the Statesman Journal called him an “evangelist for wildfire-resistant housing codes.”

“We have mitigation requirements for flooding, freezing, earthquakes, severe winds, snow loading … yet, no significant measures to protect homes from wildfire threats,” Kleinberg said in testimony to an advisory council in 2017.

Oregon Home Builders Association’s code expert, Howard Asch, said it would be cheaper to let homes burn down and rebuild them than it would be to construct them to higher standards in fire-prone areas.

“If you look at the number of houses that burned in an average year in Oregon due to a wildfire, and then considered the extra cost for each additional house that’s built to make it comply with this requirement, the cost would by far exceed the cost to rebuild every one of those houses that burned in a wildfire.”

Written testimony submitted by Oregon Home Builders Association member Pahlisch Homes estimated it would cost over $12,000 to meet the new requirements but did not include any information about the square footage of the home or provide any details on the cost breakdown.

After a state advisory board unanimously approved Kleinberg’s proposal, Long used his authority as Building Codes Division director to reject the update, citing “unusual documents” and conflicting cost estimates.

“I am returning this proposal to the board for further action, if any,” Long wrote in a May 2017 letter to the board’s chair, Jan Lewis.

James Bela, an earthquake preparedness advocate and longtime observer of Building Codes Division advisory board meetings, criticized the move during a public comment session at the next board meeting:

“Those are really weak arguments and anybody who knows anything about building codes or fires — to me I object because they’re just delaying tactics,” Bela said.

When reached for comment, Long described the work of Building Codes Division and its advisory boards as “proactive” and noted the adopted standards were supported by the state fire marshal’s office.

Deal or no deal, local jurisdictions statewide were enabled to implement higher standards for construction in wildfire hazard mitigation after the Building Codes Division adopted a permanent rule that took effect in January last year. This leaves it to municipalities to find their own political will to push up against local homebuilders and industry lobbyists. Thus far, only Medford has enacted any sort of standard.

Kleinberg’s fire safety career of more than two decades in Medford ended abruptly in June, when he was laid off five years from retirement due to budget cuts, he said.

“I think now people can see why we were pursuing something like that,” Kleinberg told Street Roots shortly after the Almeda Fire destroyed thousands of homes in Southern Oregon. “This is exactly what we didn’t want to happen,” he said.

“We can’t just keep building homes the same way we’ve built them. It would be my hope that the decision makers out there really take a deep look at this and how we proceed in the future.”

The recordings of and details about high-level conversations between Oregon Home Builders Association board members and lobbyists were provided by a person who attended the meetings but asked their name not be disclosed due to fear of reprisal.
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