Snohomish County explores buying Oso mudslide properties

OSO — People who own land damaged by the March 22 mudslide started receiving letters last week from Snohomish County gauging their interest in buyouts.

The approximately 80 letters the county mailed last week include no formal offer but ask owners whether they would be willing to sell. The letters are intended to help with applications for federal grants, said Gary Haakenson, the county manager tasked with overseeing post-mudslide recovery.

“We have sent them out to people who were impacted by the slide, people who were impacted by flooding and (people) who we suspect may be impacted by future flooding,” Haakenson said.

The mudslide sent debris over a square-mile area, killing 43 people and leveling about 40 homes. The slide blocked the North Fork Stillaguamish River, flooding property to the east and altering who’s in danger from future floods.

The county wants to gauge interest in buyouts as part of the application process for hazard grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The program is open to state, local and tribal governments after a major disaster declaration.

At this point, the county hasn’t said how much it would be prepared to pay. If FEMA dollars materialize, the county would set aside acquired properties as open space, Haakenson said.

The county promises it won’t use eminent domain if people are unwilling to sell.

“It doesn’t commit anybody to anything,” Haakenson said. “It allows us to go to FEMA and say, ‘This is the level of participation we would expect.’ In other words, if you don’t want to participate, we’re not going to take it away from you.”

For anyone who opts not to sell, it’s unclear what future use they might get from their property.

The County Council has discussed more restrictive land-use regulations near landslide danger zones. A hearing is scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in council chambers.

Separately, county officials have initiated conversations about a permanent memorial at the site.

“First and foremost, this starts with the family members who have lost people, who have lost loved ones,” county parks director Tom Teigen said. “It’s going to be a long-term process. This is definitely going to take a significant amount of time and it’s going to go at the pace that they dictate.”

County parks officials are looking to other communities that have undertaken public memorials after large-scale tragedies. They include a memorial to the 1999 mass shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School, and one in Rapid City, South Dakota, where a park honors 238 people who died in a 1972 flood.

The state Department of Transportation has moved ahead with plans to rebuild Highway 530 by the end of October. State and county officials hosted community meetings about the work this week in Darrington and Arlington. Another meeting is scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Oso Community Chapel, 22318 Highway 530.

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

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