science environment

Portland Delays Sign Requirement For Buildings Vulnerable To Big Quakes

By Amelia Templeton (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Feb. 28, 2019 1:33 a.m.

In a 3-1 vote, the Portland City Council has agreed to delay until November 2020 a requirement that owners of unreinforced brick and stone buildings post signs warning the buildings may be unsafe in an earthquake.

The vote was 3-1, with Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty, Nick Fish and Chloe Eudaly in favor of the delay. Commissioner Amanda Fritz opposed it, and Mayor Ted Wheeler was absent.


The controversial requirement was originally set to take effect for most property owners next week, though building owners sued the city over it, and a judge had ordered the city to hold off on enforcement.

The City Council approved the new requirements in a 3-0 vote last year, with Eudaly and Fish deliberately abstaining from voting.

Related: Unprepared: Will We Be Ready For The Megaquake In Oregon?

Hardesty, elected last fall and now in charge of several critical public safety bureaus, put the brakes on the placarding after building owners objected. Opponents included members of the arts and music communities, African-American church leaders and historic preservationists.

At a public hearing last week, they had urged the council to go further and repeal the original placarding ordinance outright.

“Though I appreciate the votes that were taken prior to me getting here, I feel I have an obligation to slow the process down and make sure that as we roll it out again, we are rolling it out in a way that is a cooperative effort,” Hardesty said Wednesday.

The amended rules also eliminate a recording requirement many property owners objected to and had characterized as a title encumbrance. The mayor had disputed that characterization, and said it was simply an attempt to document the placarding requirement.


The amended rules do not delay the placarding requirement for publicly owned buildings. The city itself is one of the largest owners of unreinforced masonry buildings in Portland, and will post the signs on its properties by March 1.

While Hardesty led the charge to delay the placards, she made it clear that she didn’t fully buy the opponents' arguments.

“I’ve heard some real wild conspiracy theories as I have worked through this process,” she said. “This was a 'taking,' 'we were trying to put all black churches out of business,' I’ve heard some crazy stuff.”

Scientists predict there is about a 37 percent chance of a devastating magnitude 7.1 or greater Cascadia subduction zone earthquake over the next 50 years.

Eudaly and Fish joined Hardesty in favor of delaying the placards, though both expressed frustration that the seemingly minor step of putting up a sign had triggered such conflict.

Eudaly called the issue “one of the most frustrating, fruitless conversations I’ve had in my two years on City Council,” and noted that she strongly favors tenants of unreinforced buildings getting notified that their homes or businesses may be unsafe in an earthquake.

Fish lamented the “over-the-top rhetoric” of opponents of the signs even as he cast his vote to delay requiring the signs.

Fish said he believes the council erred by requiring the signs before setting a timeline for old buildings to be brought up to new seismic standards — and a plan for how to pay for that work.

“The central question is, 'Can we structure a system of grants and incentives to protect as many of the vulnerable URM buildings as possible while protecting public safety?'” Fish said.

Oregon legislators have introduced a bill that would use $20 million from lottery bonds to help building owners cover costly earthquake retrofits. That amount would cover a tiny fraction of the buildings in Portland that need upgrades.

Fritz, who voted against the delay, said she feared the city is kicking the can down the road when it comes to earthquake preparation.