Holiday Farm Fire survivors frustrated over slow permitting process

Jan Helfrich said she knew she wanted to rebuild, but didn’t anticipate running into so many slowdowns.

Posted: Mar 31, 2021 11:53 AM
Updated: May 3, 2021 1:27 PM

VIDA, Ore. -- The Holiday Farm Fire burned nearly 500 homes last September in Lane County, and now some property owners who want to rebuild say they are having to jump through hoops to get it done.

Jan and William Helfrich have lived near Vida for several decades and lost their home and a barn to the fire.

Jan Helfrich said she knew she wanted to rebuild, but didn’t anticipate running into so many slowdowns.

“I have never been able to get anybody on the phone,” Helfrich said. “It's been just a pain in the rear to get information.”

Helfrich said she communicates with county planners only over email, which adds time to the process.

Several people familiar with the rebuilding effort claim the county’s planning office is understaffed and overworked. A check of the county’s recovery map shows few properties have been issued permits to begin construction.

Helfrich blames part of the slowdown on the pandemic, but also on bureaucratic requirements she thinks the county should waive. The couple had to prove that their property was habitable, despite having lived there for decades. They also must complete an expensive geotechnical report, which predicts the risk of landslides. These are steps that take extra time and money when residents said it should be a streamlined process.

“It’s just sad that this is going to take so long, to get a home back,” Helfrich said.

The county is well-aware of the issue, holding a Wednesday morning work session to discuss the rebuilding process and ways to ease the burden on residents.

Public Works Director Dan Hurley confirmed what many already knew – the Land Management Division which handles permits is overwhelmed. Despite adding three additional employees in November to handle the load, it has not been enough.

“We sort of missed the mark on that. I think we weren't robust enough in our projections of what was needed,” said Division Manager Keir Miller.

The department has now proposed adding six new positions, including a specialized ‘permit navigator,’ to help expedite the process for residents.

The board also endorsed plans to waive permit fees for those looking to rebuild homes. A vote on the proposed changes could come as soon as next week.

“If we don't do something now, people are moving out. And they're already crushed. They're already still dealing with trauma. This is just a nail in the coffin for them,” said commissioner Heather Buch.

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