Portland’s ill-fated attempt to require owners of vulnerable buildings to put up warning signs has left the city on the hook for $350,000. 

This Wednesday, the Portland City Council will vote on whether to pay the attorneys’ fees for a coalition of masonry building owners who filed suit against the city. The group accused the city of devaluing their property by making their buildings appear unsafe, and forcing them to parrot the city’s message in violation of the First Amendment. 

A sign on a business in Northeast Portland warns visitors that the building is constructed of unreinforced masonry on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.

A sign on a business in Northeast Portland warns visitors that the building is constructed of unreinforced masonry on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.

Courtney Sherwood/OPB

The suit targeted an ordinance passed last fall, which required owners to place warnings on Portland’s 1,600 unreinforced masonry buildings. These are the brick and stone structures most likely to come crumbling down during the next major earthquake. 

A federal judge had granted business owners a permanent injunction from the ordinance in May, noting that the rule likely infringed on owners’ right to free speech. 

The city decided not to appeal the decision and instead voted last month to scrap the rule. Commissioners then voted to hand off the question of what to do with the city’s most vulnerable buildings to a special committee, which is supposed to make recommendations sometime next year. 

At the October vote, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she didn’t expect the new workgroup would suggest a policy mandating building owners retrofit their buildings, as had previously been floated by the city

Still, some building owners appeared skeptical that city leaders wouldn’t try once again to force them into seismic upgrades they say they can’t afford. 

In his testimony to commissioners, Jim Atwood, a masonry building owner and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the coalition had spent $500,000 in legal fees fighting the ordinance. He said any reimbursed attorneys’ fees they receive from the city would be reserved for a future fight, should the city change its tune and decide to require mandatory retrofitting.

“We’re holding the war chest awaiting the outcome of this process,” he said. 

“I’m sorry to say we’re not going to get rid of our $700-an-hour lawyer,” he added.