The 15-member Mount Index Riversites Community Club (MIRCC) Board of Directors voted on Saturday, May 3 to authorize newly-elected Vice President Earl VanBuskirk to proceed with obtaining a bridge to reestablish access to those residents who have been unable to travel to and from their properties since January.
Residents who live east of the Sunset Falls area, located approximately 3.5 miles southeast of the town of Index, have experienced extremely limited access to and from their homes since December. Recently, the roadway has become completely impassible by vehicle; although there is a trail that permits foot and ATV access only. Some residents park their vehicles at the base of the falls and hike to their homes on foot.
The hillside remains unstable, and efforts to reopen the roadway have been unsuccessful. So far, the only feasible solution seems to be to install a bridge which would grant access to the Mount Index Riversites community members, allowing them to cross the river over to the Canyon Falls area, which is known as the G section.
This plan, however, is not without a series of complications.
First of all, the financial aspects of constructing a bridge are daunting to this private community. To mitigate that burden, the MIRCC is attempting to enter into an agreement with the Snohomish County Public Utility District, (PUD) which may be willing to help with some of the initial costs.
VanBuskirk referenced his negotiations with representatives from the PUD.
“We’ve agreed that, if we can put a cost sharing agreement together, we will give them an easement for the use of the roads and land either overhead or underground,” said VanBuskirk. “What they really want is the right to tunnel under our land.”
VanBuskirk was referring to a proposed PUD hydroelectric project which would include a 2,100 foot subterranean tunnel that would stretch from the proposed intake site to the base of Sunset Falls.
Per the agreement, it is possible that the PUD would also share in the monthly bridge payments of over $6,000 per month for 47 months. The agreement would grant them full access to the roads should they decide to move forward with the hydroelectric project and receive permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The bridge itself is not a new idea for the PUD, which included plans for a bridge in their proposal for the Sunset Falls Hydroelectric project as a method of alleviating some of the construction traffic burden.
The agreement was signed by MIRCC Board President Mark Bollman and will be presented to PUD Commissioners on Tuesday, May 6. Any final decision on the agreement will be made by the commissioners.
While the agreement seems to be a good option for folks who have been unable to access their properties, some residents are concerned by the terms of the agreement; particularly the part which stipulates the easements.
Index Riversites resident Jeff Smith lives in the area most impacted by the landslide. He currently has to utilize an ATV to get to and from his home. A real estate appraiser by profession, Smith is greatly concerned about giving away such an all-encompassing easement.
“I’m strongly in favor of partnering with PUD to build a bridge,” said Smith. “I proposed the idea to them before the bridge committee even existed. They came back and said they thought it was a good idea.”
He expressed that he felt that a bridge was a beneficial proposal to both the members of the MIR community and the PUD. He clarified that, being as the PUD was planning on installing a bridge themselves as a part of their proposed hydroelectric project, the cost-sharing proposal is saving them money, as well.
“They’d save $250,000 up front, because they were going to pay for the entire bridge,” said Smith.
“We need a bridge. It’s a win-win situation. What I think has created an imbalance, for us, is granting them a permanent easement,” explained Smith. “I think our roads have enormous value. They cannot build their dam project without our roads. And we’re basically giving them the roads, permanently, for free.”
Other community members are concerned by the lack of communication between the MIRCC and residents of G section. G section, located on the east side of the river, is comprised of members of the Canyon Falls Homeowners Association (CFHOA). Mount Index Riversites and G section are currently two very separate communities. Some G section residents are disappointed that they have not been consulted throughout this process since the potential traffic increase on their roadway would be impactful.
“No one from G section has been allowed to comment on the MIRCC and PUD plans. MIRCC and PUD have conducted their negotiations behind closed doors,” said Canyon Falls area resident David Wick.
Essentially, the Skykomish River makes a unique Z-shaped configuration through the Mount Index area. In the upper portion of the Z, on the west side of the river, lies the area of the Mount Index Riversites community most dramatically affected by the landslide. They have been cut off from U.S. 2 by the landslide, while MIR residents who live west of the slide, or west of the Z-shape, have had no issue reaching U.S. 2.
In the lower portion of the Z lies the area known as G section, which is located on the east side of the river. G section residents do have access to U.S. 2, but their access is limited by a perilously narrow roadway and requires traveling over parcels of land owned by four separate individuals.
The lack of official easements in this area resulted in G section becoming a gated community. Residents of G section have been allowed to use the narrow gravel roadway which leads out to U.S. 2, but to legally increase this usage would require successful negotiations with four separate property owners because the proposed bridge would be located within the gated-portion of the community.
Wick is concerned that no efforts have been made to consider the impacts such an increased amount of traffic would have on the narrow road. Currently, if one vehicle is traveling to U.S. 2 at the same time another vehicle is attempting to return from U.S. 2, it can be difficult for the two vehicles to navigate the slender roadway.
“It’s sometimes awkward,” said Wick. “There are places on the road where neither person has a decent turnout.”
VanBuskirk briefly addressed the easement issue during his presentation when he discussed the basic rules of the agreement, but did not speak of the narrow size of the roadway.
“We have to have all the permits, all the property rights, and we have to have access to Highway 2 from the other side of the bridge,” said VanBuskirk. “That’s moving along, it’s coming along… On a scale of one to 10 I’d say it’s about a seven.”
“There’s four owners, some are a little easier to work with than others, but I think it can get accomplished if we do it right,” he continued.
When it comes to property rights, the issue becomes even more complex. The bridge is being proposed for installation in the exact location of a bridge built in approximately 1960, which was removed about 15 years ago. What could end up being problematic is the fact that a property ownership shift occurred in 1965 and some of the roads were deeded over to Burlington Northern Railway, which was then known as the Great Northern Railway.
The most recent tax plat maps could have accuracy issues because it is believed by some that they have not been updated to reflect the ownership change of 1965, and that land believed to be owned by the MIRCC may actually be owned by the railway, including the land where the bridge’s installation is being proposed.
The potential land ownership issue was not addressed at the MIRCC meeting.
The PUD commissioner meeting will be held on Tuesday, May 6, at the PUD headquarters, located in Everett. The commissioners plan to review the agreement between the MIRCC and the PUD.