County: Building moratorium needs more research

EVERETT — A sweeping moratorium on new home construction near Snohomish County’s landslide areas now looks increasingly unlikely.

Decision-makers want more time to review changes to the building code to protect people and property from future mudslides, like the one that struck Oso on March 22. There’s also an increasing awareness that regulatory action, however noble the intentions, could have unintended consequences.

“We just received different proposals from Planning and Development Services and it is my feeling that the council members need more time to digest this and consider options,” Councilman Brian Sullivan said Monday.

The Oso slide killed 41 people, with two others still missing. It involved the collapse of a 600-foot-high hillside known as Hazel. Debris traveled 3,700 feet from the toe of the slide, spreading south across the valley, destroying 40 homes and Highway 530.

State transportation officials hope to rebuild the highway by the time flood season arrives in October.

The slide and its aftermath confronted county leaders with uncomfortable questions about building regulations, especially given that geologists since the late 1990s had warned that the hillside was likely to slide again. No one, however, anticipated the magnitude of what occurred.

County Council Chairman Dave Somers last month suggested placing a temporary ban on new home construction within a half-mile of known landslide zones. Somers and his colleagues all but abandoned that proposal after maps showed such a buffer would put most developable land in the county off-limits to new home construction. Even that buffer would not have protected everyone from the March 22 slide.

The moratorium came up for discussion at a May 5 council meeting but was tabled to allow more time for study. Since then, county planners have drafted alternatives to the half-mile buffer.

They include a buffer around only the Oso slide area.

Another approach would put flood zones along the river valley off-limits to home building. That would taken into account changes in the North Fork Stillaguamish River after the catastrophic slide, which caused backups that flooded property outside of existing flood maps.

Planners also have suggested more nuanced ways to increase setback requirements, which dictate how far buildings must stand from dangerous slopes. They include setbacks of a quarter or an eighth of a mile, as well as others that would employ a formula based on the height of a slope.

Those ideas are expected to come up for discussion when the council meets again at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Sullivan isn’t alone in suggesting that any proposed changes for building near landslide hazards need more study before being enacted.

“I understand the initial reaction,” Councilman Ken Klein said. “I heard people wanting us to do something.”

Like Sullivan, Klein believes any changes would benefit from a review by the county planning commission.

“I don’t think it’s ready at this point,” he said.

Klein said he’s also mindful that the information being used to inform the building-code decisions is in constant flux. That includes understanding of landslide dangers and flood zones.

“If we do anything, it’s going to be different tomorrow,” he said.

Klein said he would like to see the county take steps to warn property owners of dangerous slopes nearby.

An obstacle is that Snohomish County’s geological dangers are poorly understood. That’s the case for most of the country.

Members of Washington’s congressional delegation are pushing colleagues to better fund U.S. Geological Survey programs to gauge those dangers. That information, when available, could help Snohomish County and other local governments craft more sensible laws and keep people better informed of risks.

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

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