180 sites in Kitsap on USGS landslide map

A landslide killed a family of four at Rolling Bay in 1997. Landslides destroyed other homes at Rolling Bay that year and in 1996.           - Washington state Department of Ecology
A landslide killed a family of four at Rolling Bay in 1997. Landslides destroyed other homes at Rolling Bay that year and in 1996.
— image credit: Washington state Department of Ecology

POULSBO — When Marianna Mears bought what is now Poulsbohemian café in 1999, she was charmed by the 50-year-old former two-bedroom house with its uninterrupted view of Liberty Bay. One could walk out on the overlook on the bay side of the building and soak in the view and salt air.

That was before the night of Dec. 13, 2004. Fortunately, no one was in the building when the slope calved, moving its edge closer to the building. The city banned people from going beyond the Poulsbohemian’s front counter for a year until a geotechnical engineer could determine whether the slope could be stabilized and, if so,  how to do it.

Turned out, water from the building’s roof drains had slowly chewed away at the slope. A seawall was built at the toe of the slope, the hillside was rebuilt and planted, and the drains were undergrounded. Mears bought the property next door, which is now Bayside Barber Shop, so contractors could extend the seawall.

“I’m really happy with what they did,” Mears said of her contractors. “We haven’t had any problem since then. But if that hadn’t been corrected, it would have happened again.”

The deadly landslide in Oso, which swept away a neighborhood and killed 41 people, is a reminder of earth’s power and unpredictability. That power and unpredictability is magnified in shoreline areas: 180 sites in Kitsap County have experienced or are at risk of landslide, according to a 2008 study by the U.S. Geological Survey. (See this map by the state Department of Ecology.)

Among the questions asked after the deadly slide in Oso: Why were people allowed to build in an area with a history of landslide? But according to state and local laws, government can’t outright ban development in geologically risky areas. They can discourage it. They can require you to prove you can build safely. But in the end, the risk is the property owner’s.

“If we say you cannot build on your property, it’s a regulatory taking and you’d better get your checkbook out,” Poulsbo Planning Director Barry Berezowski said.

Here’s how it works: You propose building a home on a lot that is zoned for residential development. But it turns out your lot is identified as being a geologically risky site. The city or county can require you to hire a geotechnical engineer to figure out how the risk of landslide can be minimized, likely through slope stabilization, or changing the way stormwater is handled on the property, and/or building farther from the slope’s edge.

If an engineer comes up with a plan and it passes peer review, then you’re good to go. Any further geological activity, however, and your property’s value could be diminished. Or worse.

Fresh in many planners’ minds is the 1997 landslide at Bainbridge’s Rolling Bay Walk that killed a family of four. Ten neighboring homes were red tagged by county code enforcement officers, meaning they cannot be occupied — and they have no value in the eyes of appraisers with the Kitsap County Assessor’s Office.

Dan Lieseke, residential appraiser with the Assessor’s Office, said some of the Rolling Bay Walk homes are yellow tagged, which means if it rains more than a half-inch over a 24-hour period, the occupants must leave the property.

The City of Bainbridge Island tried the best way in its power to keep people safe from future slides at Rolling Bay Walk by applying for a FEMA grant of $1.5 million to buy the properties, demolish the homes and restore the sites to their natural condition. But, according to Lieseke, some Rolling Bay Walk property owners applied for boundary line adjustments so they could readjust lot lines and establish new building sites.

From $330K to $39K
Nature has fooled the experts before in North Kitsap.

According to news reports in 1997, county code enforcement officers yellow-tagged 26314 Washington Blvd. after shifting of the steep hillside caused extensive structural damage to the six-year-old home.

“Yeah, it’s sliding down the hill,” code enforcement officer Mark Grimm told the Bremerton Sun.

According to the news report: a concrete slab in front of the home settled several inches, taking with it supporting columns for a two-level deck. A concrete block chimney pulled away from the house. An exterior door refused to stay closed.

By November 1998, the value of the property was $30,000.

Extensive work was done on and off site to stabilize the hillside. In 2006, after more slide activity on that portion of Washington Boulevard, the county added a rainwater drainage system and installed instruments to monitor groundwater saturation and hillside movement. The county also identified possible ways to stabilize Washington Boulevard: One, a large retaining wall below the road to keep it from slipping, at an estimated cost of up to $2 million; two, a system of drainage pipes that would pull excess water out of the hillside and prevent saturation.

On Sept. 8, 2010, Steve and Joellen Lickar bought 26314 Washington Blvd. for $330,000. By the following April, they were staying with friends after a shift in the hillside severed their water line and opened cracks and craters on the property. A crack stretched across the concrete in front of the garage. A massive retaining wall was pushed out of place and pavement drifted several inches.

Code enforcement officers yellow tagged the home. County building official Jeff Rowe said the house is now condemned.

The property’s assessed value, according to Kitsap County Assessor’s Office records: $39,000.

Next week: A look at some developments proposed in slide areas.


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