Judge temporarily blocks required earthquake warning signs

unreinforced masonry old buildings

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on Thursday preventing Portland from enforcing its controversial unreinforced masonry building earthquake posting requirement.

Oregon U.S. District Court Judge John Acosta issued the injunction as the City Council is preparing to revisit the requirement, which it adopted last October. Owners of commercial URM buildings were required to post signs they could be hazardous in major earthquakes on March 1. But, at the end of an hour-long hearing with city attorneys and lawyers representing URM building owners, Acosta said Portland officials cannot enforce the requirement until May 1.

“It is as if the ordinance does not exist for that 60-day period,” Acosta said.

Some building owners had filed a federal lawsuit to block the requirement, arguing that it violated their First Amendment and Due Process rights, and would reduce the value of their buildings. After the hearing, Walter McMonies, president of the Masonry Building Owners Association of Oregon, said he believes the injunction shows Acosta believes their lawsuit has merit.

Examples of warning signs Portland is requiring owners of unreinforced masonry buildings to post, Feb. 14, 2019. (Portland Tribune)

An evidentiary hearing in the case had been scheduled for Feb. 26. Acosta called the hearing after being notified by the city that Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has introduced a resolution to delay the posting requirement for commercial buildings until Nov. 1, 2020. The resolution would also eliminate a requirement that a signed agreement to post the signs be filed with the deed to the building.

Acosta rescheduled the previous hearing for April 25, five days before the injunction is set to expire.

Hardesty’s resolution is scheduled to be considered by the council on Wednesday, Feb. 20. City attorneys told Acosta the status of the resolution is very fluid, however, and its language could change before the hearing. 

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner.

The legal sparring and potential council action are just the most recent twist in a controversy that stretches back years. There are approximately 1,800 URMs in Portland. Of those, the city believes that 1,640 have not been retrofitted to survive an earthquake. The council discussed requiring owners to bring all of them up to current earthquake codes but felt the cost — an average of $105 per square foot — is too expensive. 

But now a majority of the current council has come out against the posting requirement, which was only approved by two of its current members, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Amanda Fritz. Hardesty replaced Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who voted for the requirement, in January. She has directed Portland Fire & Rescue, which she oversees, to not enforce the requirement.

Many building owners objected to the requirement before and after it was approved. A number of groups — including MusicPortland, the NAACP, tenants’ rights organizations, Save Portland Buildings and the Council of Churches — protested outside City Hall on Jan. 5 to highlight what they said are flaws in the requirement. They were supported by the Portland chapter of the NAACP, which says such placards would discourage attendance at and decrease the value of many African-American churches. 

The Bureau of Development Services, which also enforces the ordinance, has released a schedule of potential fines for not posting the placards that range from $257 per unit per month for buildings with one or two units to $515 per unit per month for buildings with 20 or more units. That means the owners of a 60-unit building that does not post the warning could be fined $38,350 per month.

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