THE Oso landslide should rouse state and local officials to take a close look at laws and rules supposedly designed to ensure that people aren’t living or working downslope from such disasters.
It’s way too soon to blame policymakers for the Oso calamity. Follow-up studies might well show the slide was so big that no reasonable level of land-use regulation could have significantly reduced its horrific impact.
But already there are troubling indications that warnings may have been missed. Snohomish County, for instance, continued to permit development on Steelhead Drive, now a muddy graveyard, even after scientists warned of the danger posed by the unstable hillside across the North Fork Stillaguamish.
The state’s 1990 Growth Management Act required counties and cities to identify “geologically hazardous areas,” including landslide areas, and adopt regulations to protect people from them. Every jurisdiction should review its rules in light of the lessons Oso reveals.
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Tim Trohimovich, planning and law director for the growth-management watchdog group Futurewise, says Snohomish County’s landslide rules, updated in 2007, actually are tougher than most.
The no-building setback, or “run-out” area, that the county imposes at the toe of a slide-prone slope is larger than what’s imposed in many other counties, he says. That’s worrisome.
New, tougher development rules in landslide areas — if warranted — won’t affect development that’s already been built downslope. In those cases, local governments should consider buying out homeowners, much as they already purchase properties in frequently flooded areas.
Such a program would cost money upfront, but might save dollars — and lives — in the long term.
Important public-policy initiatives often have their origins in tragedy. Plane crashes, fatal factory fires, the Exxon Valdez oil spill: All have helped focus public attention on under-the-radar safety concerns. Legislators and regulators have responded with meaningful reforms.
The Oso landslide, in all its muddy, chaotic horror, may offer a similar opportunity.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).