Oso mudslide property temporarily goes up for sale

OSO — The “For Sale” sign wasn’t up for long.

It appeared over the weekend in front of 28214 Highway 530, the address of a piece of land in the southwest portion of the disaster zone left by the deadly mudslide.

Pictures of the 10-acre property also were listed at an online real estate site, promoting an upcoming auction. The listing, vague on the details, included photos of a house where now there is only mud.

The sign was removed Monday after locals complained, worried that profit was the motive behind an attempt to sell land in a no-build zone. There was a misunderstanding, and it got fixed, Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper said Tuesday.

Still, the brief commotion served as a reminder of the rawness that remains in the Stillaguamish Valley. The lives of many survivors — and the status of their properties — are in limbo, nearly a year after the slide killed 43 people.

The parcel is within the boundaries of the temporary no-build zone enacted after the disaster, county spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said.

Before the March 22 slide, the property, south of the highway, was home to what locals knew as the “blue tarp house.” The mud moved south, then swirled the house north onto Highway 530.

For Harper and other rescuers, the blue-tarp house sitting on the highway was their first glimpse into one of the worst disasters in state history. It became a symbol. Millions of people following the news of the catastrophe saw images of the uprooted home in the mud covering the highway.

After the “For Sale” sign went up, local people got ahold of the county, and county officials reached out to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, which owns the property.

The house was in foreclosure before the mudslide and had been claimed by HUD in 2013 under a federal mortgage insurance program. The original mortgage lender was reimbursed, and the house became HUD property.

The county in April officially declared the property destroyed.

Shortly after the slide, federal and state officials talked about what to do with the property, said Leland Jones, a spokesman with HUD’s Seattle office. However, during the months of search efforts and the rebuilding of Highway 530, the parcel got forgotten in the shuffle.

A few weeks ago, the contractor who manages HUD-owned parcels in the county put some properties up for sale. Selling reclaimed land is one way the federal agency recoups costs. Posting “for sale” signs is an automatic step for HUD listings.

“What happened is what was supposed to happen,” Jones said. “The problem is (that) a bureaucratic process is established to fit all circumstances, and in this case, there were circumstances far beyond what people could have imagined when they created that process.”

HUD was unaware of the no-build zone and didn’t realize that the county was working on buyouts for destroyed parcels. The agency now is in talks with the county, Jones said. Meetings in early March are likely to focus on price, he said.

The property was assessed at $20,000 for 2014, plummeting from $92,700 the year before, county records show. Because the land still has monetary value and is part of the federal program, HUD’s options are limited, Jones said. The agency may be able to accept “a nominal fee,” but the details won’t be worked out for weeks.

The idea of selling land within the slide zone, and even just the picture of the blue tarp house posted with the auction notice, alarmed survivors.

Human remains were found on the parcel, Harper said, making it hallowed ground for many.

The idea of hallowed ground is important to those who suffered or searched for victims, especially as the first year anniversary of the slide approaches, Harper said.

The fire department and other agencies are working on appropriate commemorative events to mark the milestone, but are not ready to make those plans public. Organizers now are focused on the needs of victims’ families, many of whom are asking for privacy in the weeks ahead.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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