We are on high alert this week due to an increase in COVID cases. This crisis compounds all our other challenges – safely sheltering both our local homeless population as well as evacuees from the wildfire; jeopardizing a gradual economic recovery for our local businesses; increasing uncertainty about when students can return to school in person; and potentially overwhelming our public health system.
The University of Oregon rolled out an education campaign under the slogan “Let’s Choose Each Other” by wearing masks, washing hands, maintaining physical distancing and reducing gatherings. It’s the right message, and the only one that will help us control the spread of the virus.
In the midst of this ongoing crisis, the Louisville, Kentucky grand jury’s decision not to charge officers for killing Breonna Taylor has reignited outrage and frustration. Locally, the first steps in response to the Black Lives Matter protests were taken this week. The Ad Hoc Committee on Police Policies is poised for their first of ten meetings on September 30th at 6 pm. The committee will review issues framed in both Campaign Zero and 21st Century policing. The meeting is viewable via Zoom. Information will be on the City’s website.
On Monday night, the Council joined the Board of Commissioners for a joint meeting to review the options for designating land as Urban Reserves. This planning process has identified land outside the current Urban Growth Boundary that could be included in the next cycle – 2032-2062 – if all other density and land use options within the boundary are exhausted. Because this involves county land, this is a joint decision between city and county. The two planning commissions for each jurisdiction made different recommendations: the county’s proposed 30-year option that includes some Class 1 agricultural soils in north Eugene; the city’s proposed 27-year option excluded those soils. The Council will discuss this on October 12th; the Board on the 20th. They will have to agree on the same option.
Later on Monday night, Council held four public hearings all of which are due for council votes in October: proposed updates and changes to allow digital signs and billboards; a land use designation change in north Eugene for Sheppard Motors; proposed investment in redeveloping the old LCC property on Willamette; and extension of the current franchise agreement with NW Natural to allow more time for negotiations.
Wednesday’s session focused on fire. Chief Heppel reviewed the firefighting efforts of our department to save lives and control the Holiday Farms Fire. A couple of take-aways: the evacuation was a success and all people are accounted for; 700 structures were lost; 820 people are in various shelters. Our department’s ability to think fast and creatively was key. When the fire raged and there were no more fire engines available, our firefighters walked to the fire line with shovels and dug trenches by hand to keep the fire from moving closer to Springfield.
As you know, Eugene and Springfield merged their two Fire Departments in 2010. The initial consolidation was a first step – but the subsequent steps to merge budgets, payroll, purchasing and other aspects have been on hold. Chief Heppel’s presentation focused on the benefits of the merger to date, and the challenges posed by the continuing duplication of other services between the two cities. This meeting was a first review of the current status. There is clear interest in council to move this work forward, which has both financial benefits and service delivery efficiencies.
Our immediate experience of a wildfire that could have ripped across the south hills heightens the significance of Council’s discussions about where and how we accommodate growth, and how we invest in our Fire Department. Much of our urban land reserves ring the southern border of the city; climate change makes those hills more vulnerable to fire and makes prime agricultural land to the north even more important for our resilience.
The Fire Department initiated “fuels reduction” in the south hills last year to remove vegetation that would fuel a forest fire, and that work will be increasingly important in the future as we anticipate both the need for housing development and the danger of fire.