A year after the catastrophic Oso landslide, little has been done to overhaul building regulations in slide-prone areas. But state and local officials say changes are coming.
A year after the deadliest landslide in American history, building regulations across Washington largely remain unchanged.
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Click the photo above to see The Seattle Times’ complete coverage of the Oso landslide, including investigative stories, profiles of the victims, interactive maps and a photo gallery.
From the Stillaguamish River Valley, where the disaster claimed 43 lives, to Whidbey Island, where a collapsing bluff destroyed two homes this month, the Oso slide has yet to prompt a major overhaul of land-use laws in areas prone to geological risks.
Political realities of perennially thorny property-rights issues, combined with a lack of funding and detailed geotechnical data, have conspired to make meaningful reform a slog, local and state officials say.
But changes are coming, they say.
“I wish we could go faster,” said Dave Somers, a longtime Snohomish County Council member. “But I think the steps we are taking are sensible.”
Since last year’s slide, Snohomish County has imposed temporary bans on building in and around the slide area between Arlington and Darrington on state Highway 530 and in a nearby flood zone.
Planners and emergency-management officials, meanwhile, have considered regulatory updates to prevent or minimize future disasters. County officials also recently submitted a request for federal money to help buy out private property in the slide area and preserve it as open space.
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And, state lawmakers are now moving ahead on some major recommendations made by a special landslide commission appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick to improve hazard mapping and emergency response.
Those actions include a Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) proposal that would help local planning officials and developers pinpoint landslide threats statewide.
“There are probably potential Osos in just about every county in Western Washington,” said John Cooper, a geologist and senior natural-resources planner for Skagit County.
“But all of the counties are pretty much in the same place: It takes time, money and personnel to get this stuff mapped and to share it. So, we’re looking for assistance where we can get it.”
Disaster raises questions
When the hillside collapsed near Oso a year ago, at least 10 million cubic yards of earth cascaded down across the Stillaguamish’s north fork, burying the Steelhead Haven neighborhood. The slide destroyed 36 homes, killed 43 people and injured nine others.
Afterward, experts raised questions about how well Snohomish County and other local governments share information on landslide dangers. The concerns spotlighted property-rights issues and inadequate regulations allowing home building to continue in areas prone to slides, flooding or other disasters.
Survivors, property owners and relatives of some of the dead have since filed at least four separate lawsuits claiming that county and state agencies, among others, were negligent in heeding warnings and carrying out responsibilities, setting the stage for disaster.
Within a month of the slide, Somers proposed a temporary countywide ban on new residential construction within a half-mile of slopes prone to slide risks.
But that proposal fell flat, drawing criticism from local developers who called it too broad.
“You can’t just overlay the entire county with a (building) ban,” Councilmember Ken Klein said.
Instead, the council last June approved two temporary building bans that applied strictly to the slide site and its adjacent flood impact area. Officials also requested that Lovick’s staff come up with a plan to review Snohomish County’s land-use regulations for environmentally sensitive lands, known as a Critical Areas Ordinance.
The two-pronged plan proposes the first revisions to the county’s ordinance since 2007 and includes tweaks to regulations on areas with geological hazards. But those changes weren’t actually prompted by the Oso slide. Rather, they’re routine updates aimed to comply with state requirements for local land-use laws.
The proposed revisions, which could include expanded building bans near geological hazards and new geotechnical research and notification requirements for building applicants, are expected to be adopted by the end of June.
After that, county officials plan to take a deeper look at potentially more sweeping changes to local land-use laws based on the landslide commission’s recommendations, the latest actions by the state Legislature and the availability of hazard-mapping technology, said county planning director Clay White.
“We think that’s a good way to do it,” White said of the county’s deliberative approach.
Similarly, in Island County, where a slide at Whidbey Island’s Ledgewood Beach two years ago damaged or endangered several homes and an ongoing slide at Brighton Beach wiped out two homes this month, no urgent action has been taken in the aftermath of Oso.
Rather, officials are now plugging away on routine, state-required revisions to that county’s Critical Areas law, planning director Dave Wechner said. The updates are expected to be done by the middle of next year.
Under a key proposal now moving through the Legislature, the state would pay for the mapping of more dangerous slopes using the aerial scanning technique known as LIDAR, which uses laser to pierce ground cover and show the underlying conditions with remarkable clarity.
Despite facing the second-highest risk in the nation for destructive slides, Washington’s Geological Survey has ranked 34th in state funding, according to a DNR report.
DNR’s $6.6 million budget request would bump up that funding substantially, allowing the agency to hire 14 geologists and other staff to run the high-tech mapping effort and make the information available on a central website. Inslee included $6 million for that in his budget plan.
Officials in several counties, including Snohomish and Skagit, say the mapping update is needed to pinpoint and analyze slide hazards within local jurisdictions, many of which can’t fund such an effort. King County is among the few local governments statewide that so far have carried out LIDAR mapping since the Oso slide, officials said.
Following the mudslide, County Executive Dow Constantine convened a team to examine King County landslide issues. The group eventually implemented a $584,000 update to county maps using LIDAR to identify slide risks in river corridors and on Vashon and Maury islands.
“We were involved in discussions on these issues immediately following the Snohomish County disaster,” said Doug Williams, spokesman for the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks.
A second phase of mapping, which just kicked off, will further refine detail and analysis of susceptibility for the hazards identified by LIDAR.
King County’s mapping update — its first since 1990 — didn’t necessarily find any new hazards, officials said, but provided much more information about known ones. The new data likely won’t lead to wholesale regulatory revisions, but should help builders better understand risks, said John Starbard, the county’s planning director.
“These enhanced maps will enable us to say, ‘You really need more geotechnical consulting on this site, or you may not even be able to build on this site at all,’ ” Starbard said.
No one’s suggesting the state mapping plan can prevent all deadly natural disasters, said Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark. But beefed up mapping would give the public and policymakers better information to make informed choices, he said.
“It’s an expensive technology to use, but we want to get a good start on it,” Goldmark said. “We’re going to provide the data, and we hope it’s going to be used to make people safer.”
The plan proposes to start LIDAR scans of the known highest-risk areas, including slopes along the Everett-to-Seattle railroad lines frequently closed by mudslides.
Bipartisan legislation to authorize the mapping effort passed unanimously in the state House this month, and sponsors are not expecting resistance in the Senate.
In December, the landslide commission recommended the state require counties and cities “to identify, classify and regulate land uses in geologic hazard areas” based on such updated mapping.
State Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, whose district includes Oso, said changes to zoning laws “would be for another discussion,” however.
Pearson, who is the prime sponsor of the mapping proposal, Senate Bill 5088, said the better information in the LIDAR maps “would allow counties and local governments to make those determinations themselves.”
Charles Knutson, a senior policy adviser to Inslee, agreed. The mapping can serve to “empower people before they’ve ever purchased a parcel of land.” But, he said, “land use decisions are best made at a local level.”
That approach likely is the best way to eventually get meaningful regulatory change, said Scott Burns, a Portland State University geology professor.
“Once we get planners good maps, the next thing we have to do is get them to use them,” Burns said. “Eventually, that will happen. But if it’s forced on them, a lot of times they’re reluctant.”
Burns, who has studied slides for nearly four decades, added that federal legislation now in the works, including a bill by U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, also could help hi-tech mapping efforts to better detect landslides in Oregon and Washington.
“Change happens at a snail’s pace,” he said. “But I see a lot of things going in the right direction.”
Slide-zone buyout plan
Another key piece of the land-use puzzle is a proposal to forever convert high-risk property near Oso into open space.
This month, Snohomish County submitted a final application for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to help fund a $12.8 million plan to buy out 135 private parcels in and around the 640-acre slide zone.
The voluntary buyout would seek to pay property owners the pre-slide market value for their parcels, and forever place a deed restriction on all purchased land.
“One of the requirements of this grant is that any parcels purchased must be deeded for open space,” said Kurt Hardin, the Washington Emergency Management Division’s coordinating officer for the Oso landslide. “It can’t be developed. One of the few allowable uses is for recreational uses, such as a park.”
The plan also would seek to remove existing structures and help restore damaged habitat in the slide area. So far, most property owners are agreeable to the buyout, records show.
If the application is approved as submitted, three-quarters of the cost — $9.6 million — would be covered by FEMA, with the remaining $3.2 million split between the state and county, Hardin said. The county’s share would be covered by grant money it previously received, Klein said.
FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program was established to reduce further loss of life and property due to natural disasters.
In Snohomish County’s application, officials noted the buyout project “reduces the number of homes in multiple risk areas, thereby reducing the number of people in harm’s way.”
State emergency-management officials are working with FEMA to finalize the application. FEMA’s decision on the funding is expected next month, Hardin said.
Even though catastrophe already has struck, the Oso area remains at risk due to a shifting debris field and flooding and erosion threats, officials say.
“This isn’t a land-memorial grant, it’s a hazard-mitigation grant,” said Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state’s Military Department, which includes the Emergency Management Division. “There are a number of hazards that this land buyout would help mitigate and protect from.”
Karen Willie, a Seattle lawyer representing several Oso slide victims, including property owners agreeable to buyouts, noted even if residents were allowed to continue building in the area, they wouldn’t.
“People will never come back to build there,” she said. “It’s a graveyard.”