Land-use planners ready to apply lessons from mudslide

EVERETT — Snohomish County has yet to change any permanent land-use rules about what people can build near steep, unstable slopes after the deadly Oso landslide.

Policy makers expect to take a first run at applying the lessons of Oso to the county’s land-use code between now and mid-2015. The work is to occur as part of an update of the state-mandated critical areas regulations, which the county must complete in June.

“I want to keep this issue alive and on people’s minds,” Council Chairman Dave Somers said. “I don’t want to lose this one. I want to look at making some changes so we’re better prepared in the future.”

Somers spoke Tuesday after a council briefing by county Planning Director Clay White. The discussion was a follow-up to two emergency ordinances the County Council enacted in June to prevent people from building in the immediate slide zone and areas to the east, where flood dangers have increased. The temporary measures are valid for six months, unless renewed.

Council members, when they adopted the emergency action in the spring, stopped short of making any changes that would affect building rules countywide.

The county’s existing regulations require a geotechnical study for proposed building sites within 200 feet of a landslide-hazard area.

The March 22 slide killed 43 people and destroyed about 40 homes when it spread debris across a square-mile area.

The closest homes to the Oso slide stood well over 300 feet from the precipitous hillside that gave way. They were built in the 1960s and 1970s, long before the current regulations took effect.

Several family members of the dead, and survivors who lost property, are suing the county and the state for an alleged failure to protect them.

County and state officials have tried to tiptoe around the question of blame as they look to draft better rules for the future. Among other areas, they’re exploring the state-mandated rules that all counties must adopt and update for building in critical areas. The regulations cover five areas: geological hazards, wetlands, aquifer recharge areas, wildlife habitats and flood zones. Snohomish County last updated them in 2007.

For next year’s update, county planners will review guidelines for how far new structures should be set back from steep slopes, White said. The county could change the definition of a steep slope, now described as one with a grade of 33 percent or more.

“What we have to do is to look at best available science,” Somers said.

More thorough engineering studies and disclosure notifications are other changes being considered for landslide zones by both the state and county.

The county plans to host public meetings before enacting new regulations nine months from now.

County leaders expect to consider more changes if the Legislature enacts any relevant laws during next year’s session or frees additional funding to study the issue.

The county also could benefit from the study being compiled by the independent commission that County Executive John Lovick and Gov. Jay Inslee formed to study the Oso mudslide. The group’s report on public safety and land-use regulations is due in December. The Joint SR 530 Landslide Commission includes scientists, public safety experts and local government leaders from all over Washington.

During a meeting in Everett on Monday night, Commissioner Bill Trimm, a former Mill Creek planning director, summarized the group’s land-use ideas.

“The key thing here is mapping, mapping, mapping,” Trimm said.

The experts envision forming a new a statewide clearinghouse to prioritize the biggest landslide risks, based on geological data as well as proximity of risks to population centers and important infrastructure.

“It’s a big deal and it’s going to be expensive,” he said.

The commissioners also discussed ways to provide government experts to interpret and respond to the data. The state could require counties, or multi-county regions, to hire staff geologists to address landslides concerns.

Snohomish County has on staff at least four licensed geologists, primarily in the Public Works Department.

The joint slide commission also discussed forming a new institute focused on identifying geological hazards. It would draw from government, nonprofit and academic expertise.

“Many of us work for the state already, but there’s not a lot of cross-pollination going on,” said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphology professor who serves on the commission.

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Everett School District’s administration building, 3900 Broadway.

In related news:

*The county has applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to buy properties in the slide area. Of 141 land owners surveyed, 103 said they would be interested in selling, the county reported.

*The County Council still needs to schedule a public hearing before Dec. 27 on the two emergency ordinances passed in June that halted building activity in the slide zone and the area of increased flood risk.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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