Ledgewood slide declaration dissolved

Ledgewood residents Frank Shriver, Ralph Young and Paul Morris walk down an emergency road built to access homes on Driftwood Way. The county has declared the emergency over but residents still have concerns. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Ledgewood residents Frank Shriver, Ralph Young and Paul Morris walk down an emergency road built to access homes on Driftwood Way. The county has declared the emergency over but residents still have concerns.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

More than two months after the Ledgewood and Bon Air communities on Central Whidbey were rocked by a natural disaster that made headlines across the country, the dust is finally starting to settle.

On Monday, the Island County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to dissolve a declaration of emergency enacted just after the massive landslide occurred March 27.

On the surface, the action would seem to be good news and signify a return to normalcy, but that is not the case, according to Bill Oakes, director of Island County Public Works.

What it does signify is the end of the county’s initial steps to ensure the safety of residents … the road to recovery is only just beginning, he said.

“Recovery can take a long time,” Oakes said.

“New Orleans has never recovered,” he added.

Ending the declaration will have other ramifications as well and while residents from both communities are grateful for the county’s help so far, several attended Monday’s meeting to object.

They said they are concerned the commissioners’ action is premature.

The geotechnical firm hired to determine a cause for the disaster has not released its findings, but Oakes confirmed no “smoking gun” was found.

With no clear answers, many believe it’s too soon to proclaim an end to the emergency.

“We know it’s going to happen again,” said Paul Morris, a Ledgewood resident. “It’s happened two times in the last 20 years.”

In 1991, a smaller landslide occurred nearby that destroyed at least one home. State experts also believe that these are the most recent incidents of an event that’s been ongoing for as long as 11,000 years.

Ending the state of emergency may have other consequences as well, some of which may be more immediate, said Oakes. He told the commissioners Monday that the emergency dirt road built to access Driftwood Way, is now the sole responsibility of the Ledgewood and Bon Air communities. That includes the road’s maintenance.

Declarations empower municipalities to take immediate steps to preserve life and property. That includes entering or even seizing public property, Oakes said.

Now that the initial emergency is officially over, he said, the county is under “scrutiny” from state regulators to set aside those emergency powers.

As a result, the road can no longer be maintained by the county as doing so would be an unlawful gift of public funds, according to Oakes.

Residents aren’t so sure.

“We disagree with that interpretation of the law,” said Ralph Young, a water commissioner for Ledgewood.

Aside from being on the hook for maintenance, the community inherited the legal liability of any accidents that may occur on the dangerous road.

It’s a real concern for residents, he said.

Hacked out of the hillside, the access is little more than a mountain road with no guard rails. It’s technically classified as “primitive.”

Young says he doesn’t begrudge the county, saying this is a disagreement about the law and responsibility.

“They aren’t trying to sell us a pig and a poke,” Young said.

He and many other residents argue that the responsibility does fall on Island County’s shoulders.

The section of Driftwood Way that was destroyed in the slide was a county road, a condition present when people bought their homes.

A landslide does not relieve the county’s obligation to continue to provide that access, they maintain.

Residents are also concerned that existing storm and surface water issues were a contributing factor to the landslide, and unless changes are made, may expedite future events.

Fircrest Avenue homeowner Frank Shriver said he recently built a garage and it was an expensive endeavor due to ground water. It was not the case when he built his home just six years ago.

“I’ve had to spend a ton of money to fix the problem and I’m still fixing it,” Shriver said.

He and Young say those problems are evidence of deficiencies in storm water management. The communities have formed a geology and infrastructure committee and believe fixing the problems will cost about $300,000.

Addressing the destroyed portion of Driftwood Way, Oakes acknowledged the county’s ownership but debates the continued responsibility of taxpayers.

“As far as I know, we aren’t required to provide access to an area (isolated) by an act of God,” Oakes said.

“We just aren’t.”

He confirmed the county has no intention of taking stewardship of the road even if the two communities hand over ownership of the property.

As for infrastructure, storm water problems at Ledgewood are being examined by county engineers and may be contributing factors, but they are no “smoking gun,” Oakes said.

The area is unpredictable for a variety of reasons, including unstable geology, groundwater out of the bluff and toe erosion due to weather and tidal exposure, he said.

“The whole area is unstable and it will fail at some point,” Oakes said. “That doesn’t make people feel safe.”

“There is a risk to living there and I can’t make that go away,” he said.

He promises the county “is not abandoning” the community, however, and will continue to work with residents to find solutions. A feasibility study will be conducted in the future to rebuild Driftwood Way, though Oakes said it’s nearly a foregone conclusion that repairs will be too expensive to be realistic.

A meeting is set for July 9 in Coupeville, where residents can meet with the geotechnical engineers and county officials.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson expressed concern over the communities’ plight Monday. She voted to end the declaration, saying the county had but little choice to do so, but pledged to write a letter of support to Gov. Jay Inslee and area state lawmakers.

Many of them toured the devastation following the landslide and residents recently wrote a letter to Inslee and other elected state officials, asking them to follow through and do what is necessary to determine the cause.

Their letter requested $500,000 to complete additional drilling of core samples in other areas — sample were taken from only two holes — and to address the alleged storm water issues.

Morris, Young and Shriver all say the area is their home and they have no intention of pulling up stakes. They do, however, want to do whatever they can to lessen the risks.

“We’re all committed to this neighborhood and we’re going to do whatever we can to mitigate this problem,” Morris said.

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