Oso tragedy reflects risk in older developments

The News TribuneJune 11, 2014 

The March 22 landslide that buried the Steelhead Haven community in Oso, Snohomish County, killed 43 people.

WSDOT PHOTO

In 1960, a developer failed to follow land-use rules, and the government agency that should have caught the mistake didn’t.

Fifty-four years later, those mistakes may be what cost 43 people their lives when a massive slide buried the Steelhead Haven neighborhood of Oso in Snohomish County March 22 .

According to a new Seattle Times report, developer Genevieve Taylor should have applied for a permit from the state Division of Flood Control. The property she proposed subdividing and selling for home sites was in an area with a history of flooding by the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.

In fact, according to the Times, the North Fork once ran through what later became Steelhead Haven and occasionally changed channels without warning.

But Taylor didn’t request the permit – perhaps out of ignorance that it was required. The Snohomish County Planning Department couldn’t have used that excuse. That agency approved Taylor’s proposed plat for 82 lots with no mention that her application lacked the required state flood control permit. If anyone’s supposed to know what permits are required to develop property, it’s county planners.

Had that state permit been denied, it’s possible Taylor wouldn’t have been able to develop the property. Had it been granted conditionally, it might have interfered with her ability to market and sell the lots. At the very least, she might have had to disclose the potential of flooding to prospective buyers, and that might have deterred them from buying.

Instead of withering away as other land-development schemes have, Steelhead Haven slowly grew into a little community of permanent homes and vacation getaways along the Stillaguamish. That very river – identified as a potential problem requiring a state permit – is believed to have contributed to the slide by undercutting the hillside that gave way.

The landslide victims’ survivors have no case against the developer; Taylor died in 2001. They might have one against Snohomish County for neglecting to do due diligence in approving her development application.

The destruction of Steelhead Haven points to the responsibility not only of developers and public officials to protect buyers, but also to the need for those buyers to do their homework. There’s no telling how many other older developments – whose homes are still being bought and sold – might not be approved today.

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