Fear of another wet winter

Struggle to save land continues for Darrington area homeowners

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

DARRINGTON — Nearly a year ago, the house of John Newsom’s neighbor washed down the north fork of the Stillaguamish River like so much driftwood.

Now, with efforts to control the river stalled by money problems and wrangling with government officials, and with winter glazing the flanks of nearby mountains, Newsom fears that scene will soon be re-enacted.

"We don’t know what another high water will do. But we’re pretty exposed at the moment," he said as he watched the river sweep over what had once been a neighbor’s yard.

Newsom and the other homeowners at the Chatham Acres Country Club near Darrington are caught in a classic quandary pitting their desire to save property against regulations designed to guard wildlife and protect downstream landowners.

It’s a tug of war that has gone on for the better part of a year, with little sign of an end.

Newsom said their efforts to shore up vulnerable stream banks will be environmentally sensitive. But he said the homeowners association can’t afford the $30,000 worth of studies the county wants before giving out a needed permit.

"I just don’t think that sensible land protection has to be thought of as endangering wildlife," said Newsom, the association’s president.

County officials say they need the reports to ensure prime spawning grounds for salmon, and to make certain other people’s property isn’t sacrificed by the homeowners. The studies are costly, they acknowledge, but are required by anyone contemplating major work on a river.

"We have to be consistent," said John Roney, spokesman for the Snohomish County Planning and Development Services Department. That department has authority to issue the shoreline permit the landowners need.

The river, meanwhile, continues to carve a new channel. In December 1999, filled by midwinter snowmelt, it changed course. It created a new shortcut, bypassing a looping oxbow in its twisty course to Port Susan. It also washed away a Chatham Acres house and came within 10 yards of another’s back steps. The development now has 10 homes. Some are vacation houses, and others are full-time residences.

In January, state and county officials gave homeowners an emergency permit to reinforce the fast-changing riverbank with boulders. But the county has refused to grant an emergency permit for the remaining work, saying there is no immediate threat to the homes.

Now, homeowners fear that without the added buffers, the river could wash away more homes or flow into a side channel. That could strand several homes, including Newsom’s, on an island.

"I guess my feeling is they’d really like us to get off the land," he said.

At an impasse with the county, the landowners sought to do just that. They asked the state to buy their property with money for protecting salmon habitat. That offer was turned down, Newsom said, because the state requires someone else to cover at least 15 percent of the land’s cost.

County officials say they have little leeway to exempt Chatham Acres from the permit requirements, which are required under state law. Even with an emergency permit, they still need to complete the studies after the fact, said Howard Knight, a senior planner with planning and development.

As early as May, the county urged the homeowners to apply for a regular permit so they could have time to work near the river this year. That application arrived at the end of June, but was missing needed studies of the project’s impact on wildlife and the river, Knight said.

Without the studies, it’s hard to know if the work could damage important habitat for chinook salmon protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, Knight said. Such work can also move river problems upstream or downstream by changing how quickly or where it flows, he said.

David Brock, a biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife who reviewed preliminary plans, said the homeowners may not even succeed in countering the fast-moving river.

"They may be throwing money down the river. And then again, they may not," he said.

Now, with winter’s arrival, all work will be postponed until next year. Newsom has emptied his vacation home of all good furniture, as has another neighbor, he said. In 2001, homeowners will decide whether to pay for more studies, or to cut the price of the land in hopes of selling it to the state, he said.

That may all change, however, if the river again starts taking another path in the coming months.

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