When the hillside located near Sunset Falls started to slide last December, residents of the Mt. Index Riversites (MIR) community didn’t imagine that they would be stranded without U.S. 2 access for an extended period of time.
But that is exactly what happened.
After the initial slide occurred in December, members of the Mt. Index Riversites community worked in conjunction with the Mt. Index Riversites Community Club (MIRCC) Board of Directors to maintain the slide area and keep the roadway open. The hillside remained unstable and in February, access was lost permanently.
Ordinarily, the residents who live southeast of Sunset Falls would access their homes via the Mt. Index River Road which connects to U.S. 2 near the north fork of the Skykomish River. But after the slide area became unpassable by vehicle, residents could no longer drive beyond Sunset Falls. They were forced to leave their cars parked at the base of the falls and hike back to their homes.
Eventually an ATV and walking trail was built next to Sunset Falls to help folks hike up and down.
Finally, in March, the MIRCC board elected a new vice president, who was a strong advocate for re-establishing access via a bridge which would connect the MIR community with the Canyon Falls community on the other side of the Skykomish River. The board began negotiating with the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) to enter into a cost-sharing arrangement in which the utility company would pay for half of the initial cost of the bridge, as well as contribute to the monthly payments.
As part of the agreement, the MIRCC agreed to give the PUD access to their roadways as needed for them to continue studying the feasibility of their proposed Sunset Falls hydroelectric project.
Also in March, Snohomish County Director of Emergency Management John Pennington sought an emergency proclamation from Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, who granted the request. But despite the proclamation, the MIR community was unable to get any financial assistance from FEMA, largely due to the fact that the roadways are all privately owned by the MIRCC.
The MIRCC, who is responsible for preserving and maintaining the roads throughout the MIR region, charges road dues to each MIR resident based on a complicated mathematical formula.
Once an agreement was reached between the PUD and the MIRCC board, plans for the bridge really began to forge ahead. The bridge was officially opened on Thursday, Aug. 14, and a celebratory ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on Saturday, Aug. 16.
For some community members, it’s been a long eight months.
MIR resident and former MIRCC President Bill Stehl sometimes forgets that the bridge is actually a reality, and that he no longer has to drive his wife Margot to the slide area in the mornings so that she can hike down to her car and leave for work.
He forgets that he no longer has to worry about hiking for miles with groceries, water and gas cans. He forgets that he no longer needs to borrow his neighbor’s ATV to make the trek to and from the slide area a bit more manageable.
He still sometimes forgets that he can now just hop into his car, drive right across the bridge, and access U.S. 2 without going for a hike at any point during the trip.
And then he remembers, and is very grateful for the bridge.
“I’ve lost 20 pounds,” said Stehl. “You go to the grocery store and you have to decide what you’re going to buy based on how much weight you can carry on your back.”
Stehl said that there were two members of the community who were particularly instrumental as far as making the bridge a reality; MIRCC Vice President Earl VanBuskirk and MIR property owner Elizabeth Hill.
“I can’t even count the hours that Earl’s put in to this, and Elizabeth Hill as well,” said Stehl. “They stopped their lives to make sure this happened. In terms of effort, what Earl and Elizabeth did was amazing.”
Hill worked extensively with Snohomish County to obtain the necessary permits which allowed the bridge project to proceed.
“I can’t say enough about the county,” said Stehl. “They did a lot to help streamline the process. This bridge would have taken five years to build under normal circumstances, but because of the emergency declaration we were able to get it done in six months.”
The bridge installation project has not gone forward without hiccups. Residents opposed to the PUD hydroelectric project at Sunset Falls had difficulty accepting the partnership arrangement between the public utility and the MIRCC, and there have been other problems within the community, as well.
One resident, so upset by the entire chain of events including the loss of power during the very beginning of the landslide, as well as the extended loss of U.S. 2 access, phoned a PUD customer service representative on Aug. 6 and allegedly threatened to blow up the new bridge.
This tactic did not go over well with the public utility, who promptly contacted law enforcement. As a result, an east county deputy with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department arrested the resident at his home on Aug. 8 for allegedly threatening to bomb property. According to police documents, the suspect admitted to calling PUD customer service, but denied the bomb threat and stated that he did not have any explosive materials in his possession.
He is currently out on bail.
Other issues have cropped up surrounding the number of property owners who have not paid their MIR road dues. There is a locked privacy gate on the northwest side of the new bridge which requires a code for entry. The MIRCC Board of Directors has been attempting to restrict code access by providing working codes to only those residents who have paid their dues.
According to Stehl, there are 450 property owners throughout the MIR community, and 247 of them own property above the slide area, which means they are responsible for sharing in the cost of the bridge. But despite repeated requests from the MIRCC, 60 of the above-slide property owners refuse to pay their dues.
Regardless, Stehl doesn’t feel that it’s right to deny folks access to and from their properties by withholding the gate codes.
“Do I agree with trying to force people to pay? Yes, they need to be forced to pay,” said Stehl. “But the board needs to do it legally.”
Folks who live below the slide have had continual access to U.S. 2 and are not responsible for sharing in the cost for the bridge since they do not need to use it.
Despite the issues, most of the residents are just plain celebrating.
Stehl shared that at this point, they are all just trying to get their lives back to normal. Propane trucks are finally able to provide service to the residents who need it, groceries can be purchased in quantity and residents can finally resume activities which they had previously taken for granted.
“The biggest exodus when the bridge opened was probably people hauling garbage out,” said Stehl. “Eight months’ worth of garbage.”
Stehl pointed out that there were many people who were vital in assuring the success of the bridge installation, including Mark Hopkins from Sky Valley Excavation, Interwest Construction, the Acrow Corporation, and especially the PUD for sharing in the cost.
“It’s a great community to live in,” said Stehl. “We’re so grateful to have this bridge; we’re so grateful to the PUD for stepping forward to partner with us.”