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What Could Go Wrong in Snohomish County Again?

Washington county retreats from a proposed building ban in slide-prone areas.

Washington state's Snohomish County has backed away from a proposed moratorium on home construction in landslide-prone areas. Instead, county officials said Monday they'll consider less sweeping measures, such as wider setbacks and additional geotechnical studies for homebuilding near hillsides.


The emergency moratorium, floated last month by Snohomish County Council Chairman Dave Somers, would have halted new building permits for residential construction within a half-mile of hills considered landslide hazard zones.

But Somers acknowledged at a council meeting Monday the moratorium concept had been "overly broad." County staffers determined it would have banned development in most of the county.

At the request of County Executive John Lovick's office, the council decided to delay discussion of other possible development restrictions for two weeks.

The discussion of new development limits was prompted by the devastating March 22 mudslide near Oso, which left 41 people dead and two missing.

The Steelhead Haven neighborhood swept aside by the slide had been platted in the 1960s, but some home construction had taken place as late as 2009, despite warnings about a potentially deadly slide going back decades.

Somers said the Oso slide was an "extreme event" but he supports new controls on development in hazardous areas.

He said besides looking at wider setbacks and geotechnical-analysis requirements, the council should study whether to attach formally recorded warnings to properties in danger zones.

In Seattle, people seeking building permits in known landslide-hazard zones are warned of risks via written covenants required by the city's planning department.

County Councilman Ken Klein, whose district includes the Oso area, said the county should ensure time for affected property owners and others to comment on any proposed new rules. "We need to make sure we do it deliberatively," Klein said.

Snohomish County's current development regulations say homes must be set back from the bottom of potentially dangerous hillsides by at least 50 feet or half the height of the hill, whichever is greater.

A proposal circulated by the council last week would quadruple that setback, requiring a buffer twice the height of the nearby hillside.

That would not protect houses from an Oso-size slide. The mudslide stretched 3,700 feet from the toe of the 600-foot-high slope that collapsed, a county staff report noted.

An Edmonds-area resident who showed up at Monday's meeting urged the council to follow through with new restrictions, saying unchecked development is occurring on unstable bluffs.

Joan Smith said the county needs rules on tree retention, citing clear-cuts by developers. While the moratorium proposed by Somers probably went too far, Smith said, "we do have to look more closely at some of these critical areas."

A lobbyist for homebuilders applauded the council's decision to back off on the moratorium.

"It's wise to take the time to get it right," said Mike Pattison, North Snohomish County manager for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

(c)2014 The Seattle Times

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