County may add slide disclosure to some building permits

EVERETT — Before you can build a house in the potential path of destruction from the region’s most active volcano, Snohomish County makes you fill out a disclosure form acknowledging the risk.

In addition to the Glacier Peak hazard areas, the county requires a disclosure form to build within 200 feet of tsunami danger.

The County Council is talking seriously now about a similar rule for landslide threats.

How that idea takes shape remains to be seen. It’s the easiest to implement of the suggestions that have surfaced since elected leaders started looking into improving county building rules following the catastrophic Oso mudslide.

“This form would advise applicants that they are building within a landslide-hazard area or its setbacks,” planning director Clay White told council members last week.

The county also is looking for ways to let people know about any existing geological reports performed on their property and on file with the planning department. The county hopes to make those documents available online, White said.

The March 22 mudslide has stirred up a policy debate over the county’s duty to inform and protect people from natural disasters.

The slide sent 10 million cubic yards of dirt and debris cascading over a square mile. As of last week, authorities had identified 41 dead, with another set of remains pending identification and two people from the neighborhood still missing.

Finger-pointing over the county’s building regulations began within days of the slide, before the magnitude of the disaster had even come into focus.

To date, the county and the state of Washington have been hit with nine damage claims by family members of the dead and survivors whose property was destroyed. The claims are a precursor to lawsuits.

County Council Chairman Dave Somers last month proposed a temporary ban on home construction within a half-mile of steep slopes. Now, that looks unlikely because a half-mile or even a quarter-mile buffer would place most of the county off-limits to new home building.

“I’ve struggled with our role, whether it is to protect people or is it just to notify them and let them know what the hazards are and let them make their own decisions,” Somers said during a council meeting last week. “There’s some balance there that we have to strike.”

Council members and county planners also are exploring ways to impose building restrictions around the immediate slide area and the backed-up flood waters to the east, where the upended landscape caused the North Fork Stillaguamish River to deviate from normal flood patterns.

Lawmakers also could toughen regulations for construction near the bottom or the top of steep slopes. People could still build in those areas if a geological expert can justify the project. County policy makers have talked about specific guidelines for the geotechnical reports, which would make the process more expensive.

The county’s disclosure rules for volcano and tsunami hazards took effect in 2007, as part of the framework for building near environmentally critical areas.

A Glacier Peak eruption could blanket Darrington and the North Fork Stillaguamish River valley in a lahar — a destructive volcano-induced mudflow.

The valley includes the Steelhead Haven neighborhood wiped out in the Oso slide. Only one house in the neighborhood has a volcanic hazard form on file with the county auditor. It was recorded in 2009 as part of the permitting process for a double-wide mobile home later placed on a Steelhead Drive lot. Owners Irvin and Judith Wood of Bothell were away when the slide wiped out that home.

No tsunami disclosures have been recorded in the county, permitting manager Tom Rowe said.

Another prong of the policy discussion involves finding ways to better map landslide dangers. County leaders hope to piggyback on any work by federal or state scientists. They’re also considering joining forces with King County to assess landslide risks.

Council members plan to resume the discussion about a building moratorium and other landslide topics at their 10:30 meeting on Monday.

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

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