The members of the Mt. Index Riversites community, who have been stranded for months due to ongoing, slow-moving landslides, seem to be closer than ever to obtaining a bridge that would allow them access to U.S. 2.
Last Tuesday, May 6, the Mt. Index Riversites Community Club (MIRCC) Board of Directors’ offer for a bridge cost-sharing agreement was presented to the Snohomish County Public Utility District Commissioners.
The offer, generated by the MIRCC to mitigate the high cost of a permanent bridge, was drafted based on 15 basic “talking points” which had been agreed upon by the MIRCC board members. While the offer received a unanimous vote by PUD commissioners who are in support of the PUD entering into the agreement, the offer is still contingent on several factors.
Even prior to the commissioners meeting at the PUD, plans for the bridge began to move forward. In a 13-1 vote on May 3, the MIRCC board agreed to allow MIRCC Vice President Earl Van Buskirk to proceed with ordering the bridge, despite the fact that the offer had not yet been voted on by PUD commissioners. Board member Lynne Kelly was the one dissenting vote, stating that she did not feel that they had sufficient information to proceed in making such a large-scale investment.
The MIRCC board is comprised of 15 members, but the president, Mark Bollman, is not a voting participant.
Some members of the board were concerned that President Bollman had signed the PUD offer prior to presenting it to the board for final approval. While the board agreed on the 15 talking points, the drafted agreement encompassed much more than some board members anticipated. One MIRCC board member, who prefers to remain anonymous, was influenced by the urgency caused by the residents’ lack of access. Given the opportunity to vote again, this individual would not have voted in favor of the agreement.
It is an agreement that will not only impact Mt. Index Riversites residents, but Canyon Falls Homeowners Association residents, as well.
Members of the Canyon Falls Homeowners Association (CFHOA), who reside in what is referred to as the G section, met with PUD Generation Engineering Manager Scott Spahr on Saturday, May 10, to discuss the bridge agreement and to receive an update on the revised plans for the proposed Sunset Falls Hydroelectric Project.
Canyon Falls residents expressed dismay that they have not been invited to participate in the process thus far, and were extremely concerned with the terms of the agreement between the PUD and MIRCC.
Scott Spahr explained what Canyon Falls residents already understood; that in order to justify their participation in the bridge deal the PUD needed the agreement with the MIRCC to be worth their while. As a result, the agreement grants the PUD full access to all the Mt. Index Riversites roadways, with the exception of the roads owned by Burlington Northern Railway. This includes the roads in G section not under private ownership. Additionally, should the MIRCC default on the agreement, PUD would then own the bridge outright, as well as access to the roads.
This is a huge concern to several Canyon Falls residents including Fred Slusser.
“What’s happening right now is there’s a land-grab going on by PUD, and the MIR board of directors is selling out the entire community because of the slide that’s happening over there,” said Slusser.
CFHOA Secretary Marcy Eller expressed her frustration that the MIRCC was able to draft up an agreement which included G section against their wishes.
“What we have a problem with is them taking control over what we do when they’ve had nothing to do with us for over 14 years,” said Eller. “We resent the fact that they have a right to sell us out.”
G section has indeed been isolated from Mt. Index Riversites for over a decade. With the new agreement and potential addition of a bridge, the two communities would be, in a sense, connected. There are, however, many conditions that will need to be met in order for the bridge agreement to come to fruition. First and foremost, arrangements need to be made with the property owners who own the roadway that leads from north of the G section out to U.S. 2.
Essentially, the Skykomish River takes two very sharp turns through this area, forming a rough Z shape. The MIR residents who live east of Sunset Falls, in the upper portion of the Z, have had extremely limited access to U.S. 2 for several months due to the sliding hillside south of Sunset Falls. Currently, the road is completely impassable to vehicles, so residents must hike in and out by foot.
A bridge would enable them to cross to the east side of the river, depositing them just north of G section, which is located in the bottom portion of the Z shape. From there, MIR residents would have access to U.S. 2 by way of the Canyon Falls access road.
Per the agreement, permanent easements will need to be negotiated with four separate property owners before the bridge project can proceed. If successful negotiations do occur, many residents fear the repercussions that the increased traffic will cause. The existing gravel roadway is perilously narrow, and in some areas it is simply not possible to negotiate an oncoming vehicle.
Additionally, turning left onto U.S. 2 from the Canyon Falls road involves pulling onto the 60 mile-per-hour highway in an area where visibility is extremely limited due to curvature in the roadway.
Canyon Falls resident David Wick clarified with Spahr that the offer is indeed contingent on permanent easements, and that temporary ones will not suffice. He also pointed out that the MIRCC is planning to establish the bridge on property they do not own.
“They’re building the bridge on Burlington Northern land,” said Wick. “MIR has absolutely no authority whatsoever to build on that property unless they’re authorized to do so by Burlington Northern.”
Another resident concerned by the fact that the MIRCC agreement includes permanent PUD easements on G section roads was CFHOA President RJ McPherson. McPherson questioned why the PUD would require permanent access to the roads.
“It seemed to me that basically PUD has easement over the entire system,” said McPherson. “What need does PUD have with coming into G section? To me that’s very threatening to have that on there.”
The question comes back to the proposed Sunset Falls Hydroelectric Project, which has become hopelessly intertwined with the bridge proposal. Spahr explained that, should the Sunset Falls project move forward and obtain a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license, there would potentially be a need to access the peninsula in G section which looks out onto the proposed intake area.
“If during construction they want to put those trash racks or something in place, there could be a need to bring a crane down there to swing them across,” said Spahr, referring to the large metal grates which would be used at the intake site to filter out large boulders and other river debris.
Despite the recent revisions to the proposed Sunset Falls Hydroelectric Project, many residents of both Mt. Index Riversites and Canyon Falls remain opposed to the project. Particularly worrisome to some is the fact that, while the cross-river structure has now been eliminated, the project would still include a subterranean tunnel stretching for 2,100 feet from the intake site to the powerhouse located at the base of Sunset Falls.
To some residents, the tunnel, which would be blasted out of solid granite with dynamite charges, is much too close to the landslide area for comfort.
“It’s unnerving how committed SnoPUD is to this one project. I don’t think there’s anything that will make them stop voluntarily,” said Canyon Falls resident Andrea Matzke. “It’s a financial and environmental black hole that involves blowing up granite in a landslide area. Hasn’t Snohomish County PUD learned anything from Oso?”
Some residents question the legality of the agreement between the PUD and MIRCC. They have cited the Washington State Constitution which states, “No county, city, town or other municipal corporation shall hereafter give any money, or property, or loan its money, or credit to or in aid of any individual, association, company or corporation, except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm, or become directly or indirectly the owner of any stock in or bonds of any association, company or corporation.”
Fred Slusser just wishes that the PUD and the MIRCC would have explored other options.
“There’s an alternate land exit that goes up the wire road, from Witts End Road, up the wires, and out by Gracie’s store,” said Slusser explaining that he recently explored the area on an all-terrain vehicle. “It needs fixing, but it doesn’t need $500,000 in PUD fixing.”
Slusser intends to bring a helicopter in on Tuesday, May 13, to investigate the option further.
“We know that it’s a viable option to keep from slamming a half-million dollar bridge over Canyon Falls and selling out the community to PUD,” said Slusser.