You’ve heard of “Oso Strong.” It was the community spirit — the power of a small town doing whatever it takes, together — to dig out and recover from one of the deadliest disasters in state history.
Now more than three months after a landslide engulfed the Stillaguamish River and a neighborhood, killing 43, that spirit is being challenged by a quieter force. Call it “Oso Greedy.”
A few days ago, The Herald newspaper of Everett ran a revealing story on the state’s post-landslide efforts to open an emergency-access road around the slide zone so Darrington and other communities didn’t remain cut off from civilization. In short, the state decided to route traffic, temporarily, on a pre-existing power-line easement road that crossed about a dozen properties.
But first they had to get the property owners’ permission. All immediately said yes, because it was the emergency of the century. Except one, who demanded $180,000. This for temporarily crossing an undeveloped piece of land bought for only $93,000 two decades ago.
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The one property owner and his partner, neither of whom lived on the land, told the state to pay up or “hit the road,” The Herald reported from state notes of the meetings.
This is the equivalent of when a hurricane is barreling down and the hardware store starts charging $200 for a sheet of plywood. Price-gouging works if the buyer is sufficiently trapped. And so after delaying for a week while they looked at other routes and legal options, the state eventually knuckled under. They settled on $85,000.
The other community-spirited property owners? They got around $500.
The one-lane gravel side road opened in late April and was used for low-speed, pilot-car-led traffic until June. It’s currently used by crews rebuilding the highway, which is supposed to be done in October.
“It was an act of pure villainy,” says Michael Aylesworth, nephew of Bob and Bobbi Aylesworth, who own the property next door and were rescued from their house after it was buried in the slide. “This is using an unimaginable tragedy to hold up the state in a robbery. Nobody else was out there on those piles saying, ‘Where’s mine? How do I get mine?’ It never occurred to anyone.”
But the news of the payout, while greeted with outrage, may also have shifted the ethical landscape a bit.
Ben Wells is an attorney who lives in Oso who helped a few of the families on legal issues, including the state’s easement request. He said once the anger subsides at the price-gougers, it’s inevitable the families that got only $500 may start wondering if they’re the ones who were gouged. By the government.
Because it was a disaster zone and time was short, the state signed permits with the landowners to open up immediate access to their land. But with an agreement the state would come back later, after the emergency had subsided, to negotiate a fair price. The state recently did that, offering each landowner only an additional $100.
“If you pay one guy $85,000 and the next guy only a few hundred bucks, for exactly the same thing, that’s not right,” Wells said. “It’s the state now trying to get away with something, just like the price-gouging landowner did with them.”
The state even fretted in emails about what would happen if news of the $85,000 payment got out, The Herald reported.
You can probably guess where this is headed. Wells says he may sue now to try to get his clients closer to that $85,000 figure. He didn’t know if others would follow, but predicted: “I think the state’s going to have to pay off everybody in the end.”
So in a few days we’ve gone from condemning the price-gougers to following their lead.
Wells said it’s awkward because any hint of profiting off the slide is radioactive in Oso. Even the highway as it passes through the slide area is seen by many as sacred. Wells said that’s one reason he’s doing his legal work for free.
“I’m staying away from any payment for any slide-related work,” he said. “I don’t want to be driving around in a new car earned on the backs of this slide.”
In that context, Aylesworth, the nephew, says Oso ought to find a way to let this controversy pass. He wrote an open letter decrying the greed but suggesting the greedy be forgiven.
“I don’t want the poison to spread,” he told me. “The feelings of community and having one another’s backs that came out of this tragedy were powerful. It is such a great story. Now we have this one, dark negative aspect, this avarice. Why let that eat away at Oso Strong?”
Wells said Oso remains strong. But this chapter of the story isn’t likely to end so pure.
“What they did was wrong — I found it repulsive, how they did it at the height of the crisis,” Wells said. “But now I’m going to use what they did to try to get a better deal for my clients. I feel hypocritical about that. And I don’t know how to answer that.”
Morality can be as slippery a slope as the hillsides above the Stilly.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org