Snohomish County Officials Thought of Buying Out Homeowners at Mudslide Site
By Mike Baker, Craig Welch and Ken Armstrong
Only two years before allowing people to build new homes near the Washington slope that collapsed last month, Snohomish County officials had explored taking the community in the opposite direction.
Concerned that a landslide there could "threaten life and property," they considered buying up the properties and emptying much of the Steelhead Haven neighborhood.
The year was 2004, two years before a mudslide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and threatened homes. The county Department of Public Works said a major slide could come down the Hazel slope, cross the river and inundate Steelhead Haven.
Purchasing the properties was the surest way to keep people safe, according to documents reviewed by The Seattle Times.
The costs "would be significant, but would remove the risk to human life and structures," officials wrote in their analysis.
Consultants had estimated the costs at $1.1 million for 75 parcels.
Public works officials also weighed the purchase of flood-prone residential properties at Chatham Acres, four miles upriver, for $1.9 million.
After considering the options, Snohomish County officials recommended the Chatham purchases but decided instead to stabilize the base of Hazel slope and leave the residents alone.
After the 2006 mudslide that blocked the North Fork and pushed into Steelhead, crews built a wall to prevent the river from cutting into the base of the slide hill.
While a county official has said the fatal slide was unforeseen, the county's own 2004 documents show otherwise.
The county's analysis and recommendation to focus on slope stabilization were approved by the Snohomish County Council and county executive in February 2004.
In May 2006, the county provided permits to allow new home building in Steelhead Haven, and four properties were constructed.
Eight people in those newer homes are dead or missing from the landslide, including four children.
Several current and former Steelhead Drive residents said they don't recall ever being told the county more than a decade ago had worried enough about landslide risks to consider buying some landowners out.
"If I'd known it was that dangerous, I would have moved in a heartbeat," said Dale Dunshee, who sold his property about three years ago to Irvin and Judith Wood, of Bothell. The Woods were not in the Oso area the weekend of the slide.
A furious Davis Hargrave, a retired architect who lost dozens of neighbors and his weekend dream home to the March 22 slide, said knowing the county took the threat so seriously would have prompted him to ask many more questions.
"We are not a bunch of stupid people ignoring warnings," he said. "We all make risk assessments every day of our lives. But you cannot make a risk assessment on information you do not have." Rich Sewell, who spent nearly 40 years in Steelhead Haven until his family sold the property in 2007, said he never heard the county thought the threat was severe. But he also said he's not sure how he _ or some of his other neighbors _ would have responded.
"I don't know if everyone would have accepted a buyout," he said. "I enjoyed growing up there. It's where I proposed to my wife. It would still have been a tough call."
At the Chatham Acres neighborhood, homeowners had spent years with the river encroaching and were willing to sell. In the end, the federal government largely provided the money needed to acquire the threatened properties.
Before 2004, the county began considering buying properties deemed at risk from floods or landslides as it updated its Stillaguamish River Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management Plan.
Public works officials based some of their analysis on a 2000 report by the firm GeoEngineers that said the Hazel slope posed "significant risk to human lives and private property."
This report outlined various options, including moving the river to the south by 900 feet and buying properties in that path, or moving the river 2,000 feet south and essentially evacuating Steelhead. GeoEngineers ultimately recommended moving the river 500 feet, away from the base of the slide area, and buying far fewer properties, all but one of them vacant or undeveloped.
The firm doubted that all the property owners _ some of whom had lived there for years _ would be willing to sell.
County officials considered the 900-foot option but eventually settled for reinforcing the slope. They did not commit to even the partial buyout suggested in the engineering report.
The properties are still privately owned.
Even if the county had gone with the 900-foot option, as geologists had proposed years earlier, the huge mudslide still would have taken lives and flattened homes.
It plowed across the river and buried the Steelhead Haven community, ending more than double the 900-foot distance cited in one expert's "most likely" scenario for a major slide.
Officials in Snohomish County did not return calls Wednesday. Peter Hahn, director of Public Works in Snohomish County when the buyout plan was considered, said he did not recall the issue.
Meg Moorehead, who was the county's section manager on watershed planning and flood analysis, said she did not recall the discussion.
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