Snohomish County Revisits Development In Landslide Zones

Jun 24, 2014

How to keep a county that is still reeling from a deadly landslide safe from future landslides?

Environmentalists' and developers' conflicting answers to that question will get a full airing on Wednesday at the Snohomish County Council in Everett. The council is holding a special hearing on ways to reduce the chances of new homes being put in where landslides might take them out.

Proposals to restrict development in the immediate vicinity of the March 22 Oso landslide and of the ensuing flooding along the North Fork Stillaguamish River have broad support.

Forty-three people died in that slide.

Proposals to alter the course of development in other landslide-prone parts of the county are more contentious.

One proposal by Council Chair Dave Somers, who is also a fisheries biologist, would make the setbacks, or no-building areas, below landslide zones six times larger than they are today. Under his proposal, developers would have to stay out of setbacks three times the height of a neighboring landslide-prone slope.

“It wouldn’t have prevented Oso," Kristin Kelly with the environmental group Futurewise said of Somers' proposal, "but it would certainly be more of a protection than what currently occurs.”

The hillside that collapsed above the town of Oso had a well-known history of landslides. The March 22 slide surprised geologists with its scale and how far it traveled.

Mike Pattison with the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish counties said the county’s role should be to educate landowners, not restrict their property rights.

“Getting information into the hands of people is the most important thing the county can be doing. Let people know what the hazards are,” Pattison said.

The builders association wants to put off any new restrictions on development until the county updates its rules for building in so-called critical areas.

Counties are required under the state's Growth Management Act to update their comprehensive plans, including their critical areas ordinances, every five years. Snohomish County happens to be starting its update this year and is expected to complete it next year.

The county's complex landslide zones are poorly mapped. Incorporating the results of new, high-tech maps could delay the critical areas portion of the county update well beyond next year.

"There's plenty of spaces in Snohomish County where we should be building, where there aren't those concerns," Kelly said. "The lesson here is we shouldn't be continuing to have people build in areas that are landslide prone."

The County Council hearing starts at 10:30 a.m. in Everett and will be streamed live.