FILE — Salem homeless camp

A highway homeless encampment in Salem, Oregon 

(The Center Square) – Last fall, Oregon lawmakers paid out $65 million to house wildfire survivors and the homeless in hotels and motels. Now they want to keep that money free from court battles.

Under House Bill 3261, all of the state-owned sites approved under Oregon's "Project Turnkey" would be exempted from land use lawsuits at the local level in addition to low-income housing projects. The housing project, paid for with federal dollars and helmed by the Oregon Community Foundation, was passed with bipartisan approval and inspired by California's "Project Room Key."

More than a month after Project Turnkey's first site was approved in Ashland, the program has grown to seven more sites in Oregon cities including Eugene, Pendleton, Corvallis, Medford, Lincoln City, and Klamath Falls.

"Hotels and motels that may not fit the bill for today’s travelers are the perfect place to provide people in crisis with stability and the support they need in order to move toward permanent housing," said state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, whose district lost some 2,500 homes to Oregon's Labor Day wildfires

But housing advocates worry each of those sites could be one lawsuit away from a court battle that could put the program in legal limbo.

The scenario is all too real for Gwenn Wysling, executive director of Bethlehem Inn in Bend, a shelter serving some 140 people including up to 10 families. The added challenge of yearly wildfires and freezing winters has put more strain on shelters like hers in a county with no other permanent shelter beds.

"Finding a permanent place to serve as a warming shelter to help those with nowhere to go," Wysling told state lawmakers. "No one organization can do it all."

The bill would still permit cities and counties to set occupancy limits and building codes for emergency shelters which must offer access to public transportation and lie outside of dangerous zones like floodplains.

Oregon House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, who voted to approve Project Turnkey in November, gave a thumbs down to HB 3261 on Wednesday. She said her gripes with the bill had to do with the use of the Red Fox Motel in Estacada as a shelter. The hotel, she said, is too valuable for local tourism. The motel has not been under consideration as a site since Clackamas County commissioners voted 3-2 in January to cross it off their list of potential sites.

Drazan argued instead that the state should look at reevaluating its land use laws rather than dolling out exemptions across the board.

“Instead of fixing our land use system and the things that are broken, we are giving a pass, we are doing a carve-out,” Drazan said. "We are creating a back way because it’s not working.”

On Wednesday, the state House voted 41-12 to advance HB 3261 to the state Senate. It picked up eight votes from Republicans while picking up every Democratic vote cast on the floor.

HB 3261 compliments a wealth of attempts in the state legislature this session to cut the red tape entangling the process of rushing emergency shelters.

The bill now awaits a scheduled hearing in the Senate Housing and Development Committee.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.