PUD ponders bridge to connect isolated Index neighborhood

INDEX — People living in a private community near here are moving forward with a fix after a December mudslide cut off access to homes for about 100 people there.

The Mount Index Riversites homeowners group decided to ink a deal with Snohomish County Public Utility District on Saturday. The plan to share the cost of building a bridge over the South Fork Skykomish River near Canyon Falls was set for consideration at the PUD commissioners meeting today.

The bridge would connect the cut-off neighborhood east of Sunset Falls to U.S. 2. The Riversites group has abandoned an earlier effort to clear a debris-blocked stretch of Mount Index River Road. Muddy material continues to slide down a hillside south of Sunset Falls.

Elizabeth Hill, a homeowner who works as an engineer for King County, said neighbors plan to order a portable, pre-fabricated bridge this week.

Mount Index was included with the Oso mudslide in county, state and federal emergency declarations. The homeowners had to evaluate the PUD deal without knowing whether aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would come through.

“It’s frustrating,” Hill said. “We’re in a difficult situation. Without information, it’s even more difficult.”

Hill secured emergency permits for the bridge, allowing the homeowners to sidestep state Environmental Policy Act hoops. With permits set to expire next Tuesday, the Riversites group must move quickly.

“That’s where the pressure comes from,” Hill said. “I’m at my wit’s end, which is the name of the road my cabin is on.”

Adding to the urgency, the Riversites owners had another power outage on Sunday after lines came down and started a fire near a trail which people have been using to hike to their homes. They’ve been hauling in groceries and supplies through shin-deep mud for months. The community remains cut off from emergency services.

“It’s very dangerous,” Hill said. “We need a better solution.”

Snohomish County’s director of emergency management, John Pennington, said he hopes to know this week whether Riversites can expect FEMA assistance. Pennington, a former regional director for FEMA, said having the Riversites group in the discussion for possible help marks a success. He’s looking for ways to push aid through for Riversites.

Andrea Matzke owns a cabin near Canyon Falls and works for a Seattle-based environmental group, Wild Washington Rivers. She said she believes the PUD is taking advantage of residents who are desperate for a solution, offering a deal that favors the utility’s interests.

“It’s predatory,” Matzke said. “They’re essentially trying to bribe this desperate community.”

The PUD has developed a controversial plan to build a $123 million hydropower project on the scenic river. The utility needs access to Riversites property to study the plan’s merits.

The PUD is proposing help homeowners by paying roughly half the cost, up to $250,000, for the galvanized-steel bridge. It would be installed just upstream of Canyon Falls. In return, the utility would gain permanent easement to private roads to study the potential for hydroelectric power.

The agreement’s terms allow the utility to back out if it abandons the power project. In that case, Bill Lider, who owns a Lynnwood engineering firm and is a critic of the power project, said he fears money would be wasted. He questions a deal that uses public money to build a private route into the community.

“It’s fraught with hazard,” he said.

The proposed agreement also gives the PUD the right to terminate the deal but keep the easement rights if the homeowners default on financial obligations.

Jeff Smith, a Riversite property owner near the power project site, said he thinks the homeowners needed to cut the deal but they should have allowed only temporary easement. Smith, a real estate appraiser, said the community stands to gain more than the agreement offers from those rights.

“I don’t think we’re getting a good enough deal,” he said.

Smith too has been hiking home with necessities since the slide. He’s recovering from November back surgery. He agrees that something needs to be done immediately.

“We have to have a bridge to survive,” he said. “We’re backed up against a wall.”

A similar deal with temporary easement of four to five years, Smith said, would be both fair and mutually beneficial.

Kim Moore, a PUD manager who is working with Riversites, said he believes the agreement is a win for ratepayers and the private community alike.

The utility was looking at spending some $500,000 in the future to build a bridge at the location, he said. Now, the proposed agreement would share that cost with Riversites and expedite construction to help homeowners with immediate needs. The PUD did not have an estimate of how much it would expect to spend on easement without the deal.

If approved, the agreement would also help the PUD gain access to fix power outages in the community. There have been a number of them, some lasting for days, since December.

Additionally, the bridge would give the utility access to the proposed dam site and help it cut costs as it studies the plan.

“There are numerous benefits to the PUD and its ratepayers,” Moore said.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

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