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Council debates hillside provisions

How close is too close for construction around the island’s many steep slopes?

City Council discussions of steep slopes and hillside protections Monday added little momentum to the slow-rolling effort to update the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance.

The meeting kicked off what is to be a weekly debate of items yet to be approved in the ordinance update. The council tackled sections aimed at protecting geologically hazardous areas during the three-hour meeting, with some on the council expressing only minor concerns and others calling for a major overhaul.

“The time is now,” said Councilman Bill Knobloch, who has repeatedly urged the council to charge forward on the current draft of the ordinance. “Like the old lady said, ‘Where’s the meat?’ That’s what we’re looking for.”

Councilman Nezam Tooloee was quick to correct Knobloch’s reference to the popular burger chain slogan, and offer his own slower paced approach to the ordinance.

“Actually, the lady said ‘Where’s the beef?’” Tooloee noted. “And I’ve got lots of beefs with the ordinance.”

Tooloee dropped a slab of criticism on provisions for geological hazards, proposing that staff rewrite them to include more options for landowners.

Initially required by the state to update the ordinance by December 2004, the state Legislature last week passed a bill to extend the deadline another six months.

That gives the council more time to deliberate and debate key sections, including provisions aimed at preventing runoff and landslides.

The draft ordinance classifies geologically hazardous areas based upon landslide history, unstable soils, steepness of slopes, erosion potential and earthquake hazards. Construction on these areas can pose a potential threat to public safety, according to the draft ordinance.

Current guidelines require new developments to minimize slope disturbance and the removal of vegetation. The draft directs builders to cluster structures where possible to reduce slope disturbance and use tiered designs to maintain a hillside’s natural topography.

The draft also mandates a 50-foot buffer from the edge of slopes in most geologically hazardous areas. A buffer could be reduced through a “reasonable-use exception,” as long as it’s verified by a geotechnical engineer.

Other required measures near geologically hazardous areas include landscaping disturbed sections with a mix of trees and shrubs that are native to the Puget Sound or are valuable to birds.

Tooloee called significant portions of the section inflexible. He said the city should move away from “proscriptive measures” that mandate certain protective strategies. Instead, the ordinance should include a “menu of options” for landowners to chose from that can add up to acceptable health and safety standards.

Tooloee said landowners are responsible stewards of their property and would likely not clearcut trees or build homes on slopes that would endanger their own safety.

But landowners might not take the safety of nearby homes into account, said Councilwoman Christine Rolfes.

“What about the home underneath that slope?” she asked. “We need to be concerned about the community’s safety.”

The council took no significant action, and may discuss the section again next Monday, along with draft changes to the Winslow ravine’s buffer protections.

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