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Thursday, October 20, 2016

By Mike Baker, Craig Welch and Ken Armstrong, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Only two years before allowing people to build new homes near the Washington slope that collapsed last month, Snohomish County officials had explored taking the community in the opposite direction.

Concerned that a landslide there could “threaten life and property,” they considered buying up the properties and emptying much of the Steelhead Haven neighborhood.

The year was 2004, two years before a mudslide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and threatened homes. The county Department of Public Works said a major slide could come down the Hazel slope, cross the river and inundate Steelhead Haven.

Purchasing the properties was the surest way to keep people safe, according to documents reviewed by The Seattle Times.

The costs “would be significant, but would remove the risk to human life and structures,” officials wrote in their analysis. Consultants had estimated the costs at $1.1 million for 75 parcels.

Public works officials also weighed the purchase of flood-prone residential properties at Chatham Acres, four miles upriver, for $1.9 million.

After considering the options, Snohomish County officials recommended the Chatham purchases but decided instead to stabilize the base of Hazel slope and leave the residents alone.

After the 2006 mudslide that blocked the North Fork and pushed into Steelhead, crews built a wall to prevent the river from cutting into the base of the slide hill.

While a county official has said the fatal slide was unforeseen, the county’s own 2004 documents show otherwise.

The county’s analysis and recommendation to focus on slope stabilization were approved by the Snohomish County Council and county executive in February 2004.

In May 2006, the county provided permits to allow new home building in Steelhead Haven, and four properties were constructed.

Eight people in those newer homes are dead or missing from the landslide, including four children.

Several current and former Steelhead Drive residents said they don’t recall ever being told the county more than a decade ago had worried enough about landslide risks to consider buying some landowners out.

“If I’d known it was that dangerous, I would have moved in a heartbeat,” said Dale Dunshee, who sold his property about three years ago to Irvin and Judith Wood, of Bothell. The Woods were not in the Oso area the weekend of the slide.

A furious Davis Hargrave, a retired architect who lost dozens of neighbors and his weekend dream home to the March 22 slide, said knowing the county took the threat so seriously would have prompted him to ask many more questions.

“We are not a bunch of stupid people ignoring warnings,” he said. “We all make risk assessments every day of our lives. But you cannot make a risk assessment on information you do not have.”

Rich Sewell, who spent nearly 40 years in Steelhead Haven until his family sold the property in 2007, said he never heard the county thought the threat was severe. But he also said he’s not sure how he — or some of his other neighbors — would have responded.