One-lane bridge reconnects neighborhood cut off by mudslide

INDEX — Saturday’s ribbon-cutting for a new bridge over the South Fork Skykomish River comes with a sigh of relief in a private community that has been without vehicle access since a 2013 mudslide.

Debris started coming down a hillside in December, cutting off the neighborhood east of Sunset Falls. Mud still blocks Mount Index River Road, necessitating a hike along an 1,100-foot trail and then a walk or drive of up to another three miles, depending where one lives and whether there’s a vehicle available.

More than 250 property owners were affected, including about 100 full-time residents. On Thursday, some were able to drive to their homes from U.S. 2 for the first time since the private road was blocked.

The long-awaited one-lane bridge over the Skykomish, near Canyon Falls, is now the only way into the neighborhood by vehicle. But the Mount Index Riversites homeowners group has decided to deny bridge access to some isolated residents who are behind in payment of dues for road work.

The mudslide left the community strapped for cash. Riversites residents spent some $70,000 trying to clear the road before they ran out of money to pay crews.

In May, the group decided on a different solution. It inked a $500,000 deal with the Snohomish County Public Utility District to split the cost of the galvanized-steel truss bridge.

On Thursday morning, a handful of neighbors stood in the rain by the bridge, anticipating the approval of a county inspector — the green light for traffic to cross.

“Right now I’m so anxious, I feel like I’m about to go out on my first date,” joked Bill Stehl as he waited to cross.

About a third of the neighborhood’s homeowners have fallen behind on road dues. The Riversites board decided to deny those people an access code needed to cross the bridge unless they start paying down their debt.

“This bridge seems like the perfect opportunity to get people to pay up,” said Lynne Kelly, a Riversites board member. “We’ve never had that kind of leverage before.”

Kelly said that blocking people from their property could result in a lawsuit, but Riversites badly needs the money. Those who are one to 12 months behind on road dues must start paying at least $50 a month to use the bridge. People who haven’t paid in more than a year are expected to contribute $100 a month or more.

“We felt like that was reasonable,” said Earl VanBuskirk, the board’s vice president.

After the deadly Oso mudslide on March 22, Mount Index was included in county, state and federal emergency declarations. The homeowners did not receive federal aid money, but the disaster declaration allowed the community to sidestep bureaucratic hoops and expedite the bridge permitting process.

After eight months of people struggling to haul in basic necessities, tension has been high. It wasn’t Oso. But it has been a hardship.

The mudslide took out a cabin and damaged power lines, causing more than a dozen outages and a fire. People were forced to live with no services such as propane delivery or garbage pickup.

Anger and resentment grew as neighbors debated ways to solve shared problems and how to pay for them. Some resorted to making threats, including one man who was arrested last week after telling a PUD worker he was going to blow the bridge up.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” said Tom Grenier, the Riversites road chairman.

After months of hiking from the base of Sunset Falls through shin-deep mud with groceries, gas and supplies, Thom Boullioun said, he mostly gave up on going home. The retired Boeing worker, and his golden retriever, Bandon, have spent many nights since the slide sleeping in Boullioun’s truck or couch-surfing.

His neighbor, Jeff Smith, bought an all-terrain vehicle to get his necessities home after a trail was built into the blocked area last spring. Smith and his partner, Kainoa Marquis, both had back surgery several weeks before the mudslide. One of the couple’s three shelties, Wind, is suffering from a brain tumor. Smith said he has been unable to get the dog to a veterinarian.

Smith and others think the PUD took advantage of homeowners who were desperate to gain access to the neighborhood with the bridge deal. Smith, a real estate appraiser, said the community stood to gain far more from the permanent easement rights the utility won in negotiations.

The PUD needs access to Riversites roads to study a controversial plan to build a $123 million hydropower project near Sunset Falls. It is looking into the merits of putting a tunnel in a sharp river bend to collect water and send it to a powerhouse downstream.

“This the wrong place for something like that,” said Smith, whose cabin is near the proposed site. “Preserving the natural beauty does more for humanity than the power.”

Despite his concerns about the hydro project, Smith said, he doesn’t deny the need for the bridge. His partner, Marquis, said they tried to keep a positive attitude to get through the past eight months of hardship.

Along the walking trail into the neighborhood, the couple recovered a muddy, stuffed bear that had been separated from its owner in the slide. It had become a sad but familiar sight to many on the tiresome route.

The couple cleaned the bear up and named it Hope. In an effort to demonstrate the community’s progress, they started posting Facebook photos of Hope in various places, including a construction worker’s backhoe and most recently on the completed bridge.

“We rescued Hope as a symbol of survival of this whole thing,” Smith said. “If that bridge wasn’t built, this community would be gone.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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