Public input on flood plain development: isn't it your right?

If your neighbor wanted to develop his property in a way that could increase the likelihood of a flood on your property, wouldn't you want to be informed about it? In the actual case of Mr. Johnson, he wished he had been.

Mr. Johnson purchased a beautiful home inches above the flood plain on the Applegate River. (Flood plains are areas near streams known to regularly flood in times of high water.) Years later his neighbor submitted an application to build a private bridge across the river just downstream. The county chose to process the bridge application as "Type 1," which provides neighbors with no notice or opportunity to comment on the application or appeal the decision. The county approved the application despite knowing the bridge could raise the floodwaters up to one foot on Johnson's property (This is actually allowed in the code.)

Mr. Johnson appealed the use of the Type 1 process to Oregon's Land Use Board of Appeals, pleading with the board that the county should have provided him notice and allowed him the opportunity to comment on the application. The board agreed that only simple, straightforward projects that don't require judgment calls are allowed to be processed without any notice and comment to neighbors, and that the bridge requiring complex engineering analysis wasn't one of those easy projects.

The board also directed Jackson County to reprocess the application as "Type 2," which requires notice plus the opportunity to comment on and appeal applications if necessary. The second time around, Mr. Johnson hired an engineer to review the application. His engineer found that the applicant's engineer had drastically understated the flooding impact, and essentially suggested that Mr. Johnson buy a snorkel to live in his house, if it survived a flood at all. The final result was that the bridge application was withdrawn because it didn't meet the county code's requirements.

These basic property rights that Mr. Johnson fought hard for are still at the heart of an ongoing debate right now as Jackson County goes through the process of amending its outdated flood plain ordinance.

Jackson County, like most counties and cities across the country, participates in the National Flood Insurance Program. Communities that enforce the suitable management of flood plain areas are allowed to participate in the program, and in exchange, community residents receive federally subsidized flood insurance. A few years ago, the county was notified that its ordinance regulating development in flood plain areas was out of compliance with federal standards, and the county is now updating its ordinance to come into compliance.

The county should be praised for its hard work to fix this ordinance — it has not been an easy process. And it is not over ... As the county approaches its May 3 deadline for approving the updated ordinance, there is still one hefty issue left to be resolved: Should the public have the opportunity for notice and comment on development applications in flood plain areas?

Despite Mr. Johnson's win, Jackson County Planning is currently recommending processing all flood plain development through Type 1 review, prohibiting any notice, comment or appeal opportunities. It is now up to the Board of County Commissioners to ensure that landowners receive notice and have the chance to comment on development applications in flood plain areas, which proved to be so important in Mr. Johnson's case. Hydrologic engineering is complex, and engineers are human. Just like going to the doctor, a second opinion can be quite valuable in these cases.

If you believe that you should have the right to know about these types of proposed developments that could negatively affect your own property, as in Mr. Johnson's case, please e-mail or call your commissioners soon (see for contact information.) The first public hearing on this issue will be held Tuesday, March 1, at 1:30 p.m. at the old County Courthouse, 100 South Oakdale Ave. in Medford. A second hearing is scheduled for March 16.

Sarah Vaile is program director for Rogue Advocates (, a nonprofit organization dedicated to responsible land use and citizen involvement in the land-use process in the Rogue Valley.

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