County Council to take up land use in slide areas

EVERETT — Homebuilders and conservationists are honing arguments to sway the Snohomish County Council’s policy decisions about building near landslide zones.

They’ll get to put their powers of persuasion to the test during a hearing scheduled Wednesday.

That’s when county lawmakers plan to take up proposed land-use changes reacting to the catastrophic Oso mudslide. They could vote to pass some into law, after two months of back-and-forth.

The growth-oriented conservation group Futurewise supports all three proposals up for discussion, though builders and Realtors have mixed reactions.

“It is a good first step,” said Kristin Kelly, a local program director for Futurewise. “It’s better to start doing something now than to be in a reactive mode.”

The March 22 slide killed 43 people, one of whom remains missing.

The force of the disaster surpassed what experts had predicted from the slide-prone hillside known as Hazel. Debris traveled a mile from the top the 600-foot slope, wiping out the rural Steelhead Haven neighborhood.

A month later, as rescue and recovery operations started to subside, council Chairman Dave Somers jump-started conversations about overhauling land-use regulations.

Somers’ original proposal would have imposed a six-month temporary ban on development within a half-mile of steep slopes. He and his colleagues abandoned that idea after realizing that such a buffer would have halted new home construction in most of unincorporated Snohomish County.

Since then, the thinking has evolved.

One change now under discussion would stop new construction in the immediate area of the Oso slide — but not beyond that. Another would do the same for a flood zone east of the slide. The millions of cubic yards of dirt and debris likely has changed who’s at risk in future floods along that stretch of the North Fork Stillaguamish River.

A third proposal would address various countywide regulations about building near steep slopes, such as increasing the requirements for geotechnical studies before issuing building permits. Other ideas deal with ways to warn homeowners and prospective buyers about natural hazards.

“I want to try to do the right thing for everybody,” Councilman Terry Ryan said.

Getting everyone to agree will be impossible.

While Ryan said he’s prepared to support an emergency ban in the slide area, his council colleague Ken Klein worries that could unintentionally slow down the community’s attempts to rebuild.

The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties plans to speak out against proposals to record landslide risks in official county documents that would show up on title searches.

“I think the county needs to act carefully when it comes to the notice requirements,” said Mike Pattison, a builders lobbyist. “If it were to run on a title, it could make it extremely difficult for homeowners to get insurance. We’re finding that landslide insurance is very difficult, if not impossible, to get.”

The builders group would prefer the county send out warnings about landslide risks with yearly assessment notices. It also opposes a “one-size-fits-all” approach to increasing the zones where special landslide-hazard studies are required as a condition of issuing permits.

The builders, on the other hand, have no problem with making landowners sign waivers acknowledging geological hazards, Pattison said. Everett, Seattle and Island County have such requirements in place.

Likewise, the Snohomish County-Camano Association of Realtors worries new land-use rules could be burdensome if they aren’t backed by science.

“I think that’s our goal here, to make sure we don’t overreach in the name of safety,” spokesman Ryan McIrvin said. “You start recording on a title, and that’s forever, not just for six months.”

To increase the scientific understanding of landslide risks, Somers and others have advocated for better cooperation with state and federal authorities. A major step toward that goal would be securing an estimated $4 million to finish mapping all of Western Washington using technology known as Light Distance and Ranging, or LIDAR. The technology can help experts pinpoint likely landslide locations, including areas hidden by vegetation and centuries of geologic change.

Kelly, of Futurewise, countered that what’s at stake goes beyond property rights. The whole community ends up grieving and paying the bill when disaster strikes, she said.

Wednesday’s hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. in council chambers on the eighth floor of the county’s Robert Drewel Building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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