County taking more time to consider construction moratorium

EVERETT — Snohomish County leaders want a few more days to mull over a proposed emergency ban on homebuilding near landslide zones, a move being considered in light of the catastrophic March 22 mudslide near Oso.

The temporary ban would apply to residential construction within a half mile of areas with landslide risks identified in the county’s natural hazards plan. An estimated 30,000 people live in such areas of Snohomish County, mainly near coastal bluffs and mountain valleys.

A vote has been rescheduled for Monday at 10:30 a.m.

If imposed, the moratorium would last for six months. It would only apply to slopes of 50 feet or greater. By law, the council must schedule a public hearing within 60 days of passing the emergency measure.

Reconstruction of Highway 530 should not be affected by the moratorium, Council Chairman Dave Somers said.

All five council members supported taking more time for review.

“It’s important to understand the implications of this particular proposal,” Councilman Brian Sullivan said.

Since the slide, county leaders have been peppered with questions about what they would do to safeguard people from future slides.

The March 22 Oso mudslide wiped out the Steelhead Haven neighborhood and killed 41 people, with two others missing.

Lawmakers also are being asked what they knew about landslide risks, and whether homeowners were properly warned about the potential for catastrophe.

The closest house to the slide at Steelhead Haven, the rural community along the North Fork Stillaguamish River, was about 400 feet away. The county building rules, in effect since 2007, require a special review for construction within 200 feet of a landslide area. Specific restrictions apply within 50 feet of some slopes.

The same hillside that collapsed March 22 also experienced large slides in 2006 and 1967. The earlier events both blocked the North Fork Stillaguamish River. The one in 1967 hit some cabins, but caused no injuries.

Since 2006, the county issued permits for seven homes in the Oso area hit by the deadly slide.

A geological study in 1999 had warned that the slope could suffer another failure similar to the one in 1967, which traveled about 900 feet. Debris from last month’s slide, however, extended 5,827 feet from the scarp to the farthest point south. It covered 245 acres in an estimated 10 million cubic yards of debris.

“This landslide obviously was far greater in extent than anybody could have expected. Even the experts I’ve listened to and talked to are amazed by the distance traveled and just the magnitude of this event,” Somers said.

In 2004, the county considered buying up homes in the area, but gave the project a lower priority. Flooding was considered a more immediate threat.

It’s unclear how many potential homes the proposed building ban would restrict.

The county on average issues 1,200 residential building permits during a six-month period, Will Hall, a senior council analyst, said during a staff briefing. Conservatively, Hall estimated that 25 to 100 housing units could be put on hold.

The ban would not cover remodeling existing structures, or to rebuilding infrastructure damaged by the Oso mudslide.

By law, the legislation also could not halt projects with valid permits or completed building applications. For instance, it would not stop plans for more than 3,000 condos in Woodway at Point Wells, an industrial property just west of a 200-foot bluff with a history of instability. That’s because the developer already has a legally protected building application.

If the moratorium passes, County Executive John Lovick’s administration would be asked to come up with policy recommendations, based on input from people and businesses. Planning officials also could notify homebuilders in known slide areas of potential risks.

Part of the upcoming discussion, Somers promised, would focus on balancing property rights with the county’s duty to keep people safe from natural hazards. There’s also a debate about whether the county’s role should be to declare certain areas off limits to development, or to simply inform people of potential risks.

“There’s a push and pull of protecting life and property and yet a push on the other side to make sure that people can use and enjoy their property,” Somers said. “So we’re caught in the middle.”

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

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