Protecting residents, tourists, animals and property comes first

It’s been several weeks since I was sitting in my car with my husband and dog, ash flying around, smoke so thick we could barely see two cars ahead of us, as everyone tried desperately to evacuate Lincoln City on the lone open escape route. We sat at a dead stop for what felt like hours. My mind flashed back to the Paradise fire in California. People perished seated in their cars. I began calculating how we would get to the beach if we had to leave the car. 

There are hundreds of stories like mine. Some Oregon residents were not as blessed as we were to escape with their lives or return to a home still standing. As the effort to return to routine continues, I keep thinking, where do we go from here? There are numerous conversations going on and lots of data gathering underway, but what will we do with the output? Will we seize the opportunity to address what has been staring us in the face for so long and act appropriately? Will we use what was learned from these firsthand experiences to make sensible decisions previously thought to be too unpopular or too expensive? Or will memories fade too quickly and our city goes back to business as usual … until next time.

Ken Murphy, emergency management coordinator for Lincoln City, said what keeps him up at night is thinking about a disaster in this city during tourist season. We know population density impacts disaster response results, yet every spring and summer we “encourage” our population to explode far beyond the capacity of our city’s infrastructure and resources to support it. We ignore that our police and fire departments are ill equipped to deal with the sheer numbers of people that pack into our residential neighborhoods. (Just look at what happens every Fourth of July.) We ignore that the layout and capacity of our streets cannot handle traffic on a normal summer day, let alone during an emergency. We ignore concerns regarding the ability to effectively communicate with renters during an emergency. Mostly, we ignore our most cherished belief that peoples’ safety is more important than revenue. And we hope we get through another season without something bad happening, 

I respect that Lincoln County needs tourist revenue, but we must strike a balance between safety and income. It should start with how we license short-term rentals. Licensing should support a population density that our infrastructure and resources can support during all seasons. It should be based on the total number of people and vehicles an area can accommodate safely, not the number of bedrooms in a specific house or a cap percentage based on the number of houses. Percentage-based caps make no distinction between an STR with 18 people/six cars and an STR with three people/one car. They both count the same against the cap, but one is a much greater impact on density than the other. That logic cannot support our need to control density. 

Yes, the number of STRs and occupancy levels should be lowered to address population density, but there is more to the equation than can be addressed in this space. We need to focus on what works best for our neighborhoods, not simply mimic what other counties have done. Open minded and willing city and county leaders have an obligation to adequately address safety and revenue. We need to hold them accountable for doing so.

Elaine Starmer is a resident of the Roads End area in Lincoln City.