Development Pressure Vs. Landslide Risk In Snohomish County

May 29, 2014

The Oso Landslide highlighted a challenge that is not new to the Northwest: how to keep population growth out of risky areas.

Snohomish County has to make room for up to 220,000 new people by the year 2035, according to state requirements. And like many other parts of the Northwest, there are a lot of places where landslides pose a threat to current, and future, homeowners.

In part two of our series from EarthFix, Ashley Ahearn takes a look at development pressure and landslide risk in Snohomish County.

Barbara Ingram has a worried look on her face. We’re standing on the road in her neighborhood, looking into the woods.

Ingram: “We’re looking from the distance at a cabin that was built many years ago and is part of the property owned by West View properties now, slated for a proposed development called Seabrook Heights.”

70 homes could be built in this 13-acre patch of forest about 15 miles north of Seattle in Snohomish County.

Well actually, the homes would only be built on 9 acres of it, because the rest of the property is too steep.

A few hundred yards from where we’re standing, the property slopes down into a ravine, less than a quarter mile from Puget Sound. Ingram’s been protesting the Seabrook Heights development for the past 10 years. She worries that the slope of this property, combined with the weak soil, makes this a really dangerous place to build.

Ingram: “All the water from those 70 homes, plus 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.”

And there have been other landslides in this suburban neighborhood. One took out a home less than a quarter mile from where we’re standing. A few years ago the nearby park was closed for 9 months when a landslide blocked the main trail.

Snohomish County denied the permit for the Seabrook Heights development back in 2009. David Beck, the developer, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Barbara Dykes was the one who made the final call on the permit for Seabrook Heights. She was the county hearing examiner at the time, and said it was a contentious case.

Dykes: "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."

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.

Dykes: “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.”

When Barbara Dykes’ term ended, the Snohomish County Council chose not to reappoint her.

Mike Pattison is with the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. The MBA represents a range of building and development interests.

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

Ashley Ahearn: "Did MBA actively lobby the county council to get rid of Barbara Dykes?"

Pattison: “Yes.”

Ashley Ahearn: “Was she more likely as a hearing examiner to rule against a proposed development than to rule in favor of a proposed development?”

Pattison: “I don’t know the numbers but based on the phone calls that I got, yes.”

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 tragic Oso landslide, which killed more than 40 people in this county, these questions weigh heavily on the Snohomish County Council – but perhaps most heavily on council chair Dave Somers.

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

Somers has proposed a 6-month moratorium on all building permits within a certain distance from known landslides. He says the moratorium would give the county a bit of breathing room and time to get more data about landslide risks.

The Master Builders Association opposed the moratorium. The group said it would have killed this summer’s construction season. Again, Mike Pattison with the MBA.

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

The county council has now postponed a vote on the moratorium twice. Councilman Somers says he’ll continue to pursue more stringent codes and will work to get better landslide data for the county in the future.

If you ask Barbara Ingram, the Snohomish County resident who is fighting the Seabrook Heights development, the county is at a crossroads.

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

The developer of Seabrook Properties has resubmitted his permit application. Snohomish County is reviewing it now.

Under state requirements, Snohomish County has to come up with a plan to accommodate the 220,000 more people that could move here in the next 20 years.

The question is whether the codes will be ready in time to clearly dictate where that growth can occur safely.

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