Vote on landslide-zone restrictions postponed again

EVERETT — Snohomish County policymakers have reached an impasse over whether to impose emergency restrictions on homebuilding near landslide zones.

On Monday, the County Council again put off voting on a temporary building ban until at least June 25, when members scheduled a public hearing. The hearing will give people a chance to comment before the council takes action.

Even then, odds are against a moratorium along the lines of what County Council Chairman Dave Somers first suggested in April. To pass, the emergency legislation would need support from four of five council members — and it isn’t there.

“I know what I would like to do, but it’s obvious that there’s no consensus emerging,” Somers said Monday.

Council members did signal a willingness to back new requirements to record landslide dangers on property titles. They also want to explore making property owners sign waivers acknowledging risks from landslides and other natural hazards, such as volcanic-eruption and earthquake zones. They’re studying waivers in use by Everett, Seattle and Island County.

“I’m in favor of us notifying people who may not even know they’re in a zone,” Councilman Ken Klein said. “I’m in favor of doing that right away.”

The county’s elected leaders have been wrestling with ways to better inform and protect the public after the March 22 Oso mudslide. Debris traveled a mile, leaving 43 dead, with one person still missing.

The scope of the disaster caught even landslide experts by surprise.

Somers started the conversation about changing building regulations when he suggested an emergency ban within a half-mile of steep slopes of 50 feet or higher. That idea quickly lost support after maps showed it would have placed most of the county off-limits to home-building.

The council also has considered a buffer of a quarter-mile or eighth-of-a-mile near steep slopes, but those also appear to lack support.

County planning staff also drafted recommendations that would apply to specific areas in the North Fork Stillaguamish River valley. One would impose temporary building restrictions surrounding the immediate slide area; the other would apply to the flood zone upriver from the slide, which drastically altered the landscape and rendered existing flood maps obsolete.

Klein, whose district includes the Stillaguamish Valley, opposes any emergency ban that might affect his constituents, at least not without further study.

“My concern is that there are just so many unknowns,” Klein said. “The emergency is past us, and we need to make sure we do it right.”

The chairman of the county planning commission said any land-use regulations intended to protect people from natural disasters could benefit from a longer public process.

“The more eyes we have on really critical regulations like that, the better,” Guy Palumbo said. “Ultimately better regulations come out.”

The full planning commission process could take months or longer.

The County Council is talking about increasing the requirements for geotechnical studies near steep slopes before issuing building permits.

Under current rules, geological studies are required within 200 feet of some steep slopes.

The council could change the rules to base the buffer on the height of the slope. In one version, the distance requiring study would be equal to the slope height, both above and below the slope; in another, it would be double the slope height at the bottom, and equal to it at the top.

Neither of those regulations would have protected most of the Oso mudslide victims from the 600-foot-high hillside to the north. When the hillside experienced a smaller slide in January 2006, debris traveled about 730 feet — about 400 feet from the closest home.

The March slide covered the width of the valley, and then some, climbing the opposite slope.

Separate from the land-use questions, Snohomish County staff plan to work with the federal government, the state and King County officials to map landslide risk using technology known as Light Distance and Ranging, or LIDAR. If money materializes, the mapping work would take at least a year to complete, planning staff estimated. Once the data become available, the county would need to have staff analyze it and create maps.

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

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