Oso Highlights A Policy Challenge: Development Pressure Vs. Landslide Risk

May 29, 2014

Barbara Ingram furrows her brow as she peers into a patch of woods up the road from her house. Developers have had their eyes on this place, too.

The edge of this property slopes down into a ravine less than a quarter-mile from Puget Sound. Ingram is part of a neighborhood group that’s protested this development called Seabrook Heights for the past 10 years. She worries that the slope of the property, combined with the weak soil, could make it a dangerous place to build.

“All the water from the trees that are no longer going to be there – which is about 400 trees that soak up the water – will make its way down the hillside and can cause landslides,” Ingram said.

Ingram’s argument became more urgent after March 22, when a mudslide killed 42 people in Oso, Washington. That slide highlighted a challenge the Northwest has grappled with for years: How to keep houses from being built in risky areas.

This map shows the site of the proposed development, which is surrounded by wetlands and steep slopes.
This map shows the site of the proposed development, which is surrounded by wetlands and steep slopes.

Developers have proposed building 70 homes on the 13-acre Seabrook Heights property. The homes would only be built on nine of the 13 acres because the rest of the property is too steep.

Ingram is concerned about the kind of damage a slide could cause for a neighbor’s property, a salmon-bearing creek and Meadowdale Beach Park –- all which lie below the proposed development.

David Beck, the developer behind the Seabrook Heights project, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Landslides are not new for this suburban area 15 miles north of Seattle in Snohomish County. One took out a home less than a quarter mile from the proposed development. A few years ago, Meadowdale Beach Park was closed for nine months when a landslide blocked the main trail.

Developers Lobby

Snohomish County denied the permit for the Seabrook Heights development back in 2009.

“As I recall, I determined that the proposal didn’t meet the county code in a number of areas with respect to drainage and steep slopes,” said Barbara Dykes, who was the county hearing examiner at the time.

As county hearing examiner, Dykes had to walk the line between balancing the interests of the public with the interests of developers seeking approvals for their permit applications.

Seabrook Heights was just one of several challenging cases she reviewed. Dykes describes that period in her career as “very difficult” because of the often political nature of her job, but she says she took her duty to accurately interpret county code very seriously.

“I think when I came in the difference between me and my predecessor was that I tended to look more critically at applications and that wasn’t always welcome,” Dykes said.

When Dykes’ term ended, the Snohomish County Council chose not to reappoint her. They made their decision after being lobbied by the building and development industry.

Mike Pattison manages government affairs in Snohomish County for the Master Builders Association of Snohomish and King Counties. He said Dykes was more likely to rule against development interests than in favor — as she did in 2009 against the Seabrook Heights proposal.

The builders association sent a detailed letter to the Snohomish County Council outlining their complaints about Dykes’ performance as hearing examiner.

“There’s going to be disagreements, and sometimes hearing examiners make mistakes, and we understand that,” Pattison said. “But when it’s consistent project after project, there’s a problem.”

EarthFix reviewed more than 800 Snohomish County hearing examiner cases since 2007. The review concluded that the estimated percentage of land use, development and permitting cases that were either denied or not immediately approved because they were remanded for further study under Dykes was more than double that of other hearing examiners immediately before and after her tenure.

Still, even while Dykes held the position, more than 80 percent of development projects received either outright or conditional approval.

County records also show Dykes more frequently granted appeals requiring thorough environmental impact reviews. In the write-up for one denied project, Dykes accused county officials of deliberately misreading the rules in order to approve the project. In some instances, cases denied or stalled under Dykes were approved after she left the position.

The developer of Seabrook Heights appealed the county’s decision to deny him a permit, and has since re-submitted his permit application. Snohomish County is reviewing it now.

Proposed Building Moratorium

For every piece of county or building code written there can be multiple interpretations and room for legal dispute. How close to a landslide zone can you put a housing development? How steep can the terrain be before it’s too dangerous? How do you decide how great the landslide risk is for a particular area?

In the wake of the Oso landslide, County Council Chairman Dave Somers proposed a six-month moratorium on all building permits within a certain distance of known slide areas. He said the moratorium would give the county time to research landslide risks.

“Our current code is, in my view, too simplistic and in some cases under-protective,” Somers said. “That has been made obvious by the Oso slide and it’s time to take a step back and look at that.”

The proposed move drew strong opposition from the building industry.

“It would have decimated our industry for 2015 and not just our industry, but the entire county,” Pattison said. “Housing makes up 18 percent of our economy and that would have made a huge blow to the local economy.”

Pattison said that the timing of a six-month hold on construction could not be worse with the summer construction season ahead.

The construction industry’s concerns appear to have been heard. The county council has twice postponed a vote on the proposed moratorium. Somers said he will continue to pursue more stringent codes and will work to get better landslide data for the county in the future.

Back in Edmonds, Barbara Ingram, the resident fighting the Seabrook Heights development, said the county is at a crossroads.

“I think Snohomish County needs to take another look to decide what is really important here,” she said. “Is it money or is it human life? Are you going to put people at risk and really, who does that benefit?”

EarthFix Reporter Tony Schick contributed to this report.