Sitka broadens commitment to assessing landslide risk

At their meeting last night, the Sitka Assembly broadened the city’s commitment to landslide risk assessment. They approved a community-wide mapping project and an analysis of the Gary Paxton Industrial Park. And if their deliberations had a central question, it was this: Given the land shortage in Sitka, does establishing “risk zones” hamper future development? Basically, how much is too much when it comes to landslide research?

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It’s hard to put into words just how much the August 18th landslides changed Sitkans and their relationship to the land. Take Assembly member Matthew Hunter. The lifelong Sitkan mentioned how he accompanied Bill Laprade, the geotechnical expert hired by the city, to survey the South Kramer Avenue area.

“Hiking up around the landslide immediately after the event, we got to talking and guy said yeah – “You see all the flat area along the shorelines. That’s all landslide deposit.’ So, you wait long enough and something’s going to fall,” Laprade said. “Be it a tree or a rock or a hillside. And I guess it opened my eyes, opened all of our eyes to that risk.”

But that risk is difficult to quantify. You can’t tell the dangers of a slope just by looking at it. Unless you’re NASA.

“The jet propulsion lab of system flew their P-band radar system over the Sitka area twice to see if they could ascertain any further creep of our slide area,” said Tori O’ Connell, Research Director at Sitka Sound Science Center.

In the wake of landslide, the center coordinated a GeoTask Force to pool landslide research from NASA, the U.S. Forest Service, and a variety of other federal and state agencies. Presenting their findings to the Assembly, O’Connell said that the rain event that caused the landslide – three inches in six hours – is rare. Happening every 45 years. She added that the center is working with National Weather Service to develop a warning system for landslides.

“You might have noticed, that since the landslide the National Weather Service hasn’t included landslide warnings in their weather report, on the marine weather,” O’ Connell said. “The hope is that with siting of more weather stations the modeling can make these warnings more specific.”

With specificity in mind, the Assembly considered a resolution to develop a community-wide hazard map for Sitka. Inspired by Laprade’s report from South Kramer, which mapped low, medium, and high risk areas, this report would do a similar analysis along the entire road system. Shannon & Wilson, Laprade’s firm, estimated it would cost $150,000. Mayor Mim McConnell felt this was the more affordable option than going parcel by parcel.

“There’s people that maybe would want to know this, but maybe would not be able to afford to have a study done,” said McConnell. “And I think that would not be very fair.”

The pros of mapping are pretty obvious, enhancing safety of people and property.

But the cons are manifold too. Here’s Maegan Bosak, Planning and Community Development Director, over the phone before the meeting.

“Some of the cons could possibly be impacts on property value and future sales of property, possibile limitations on use of property or rights to property and then certainly there could be limitations or impacts on development costs,” Bosak said.

Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz worried that in pursuing the information, the city would one day order people to abandon their homes and eliminate land for development altogether. Bosak assured him that regulations of any kind would come well after the mapping process. And Assembly member Bob Potrzuski had this to say.

“I’ve also had those same thoughts Steven,” Potrzuski said. “And it keeps coming back to me though that, if I don’t know that I live in a risky area, I can’t make that decision in my own whether to stay that or not.”

That comment steered the Assembly towards unanimous support of a community-wide hazard map on first and final reading.

The Assembly’s next item of business was to award a contract to Shannon & Wilson to perform a debris flow/risk analysis at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park. Their administrative building, which was damaged by the August 18th landslide, is up for sale. City Administrator Mark Gorman said the city would not sell that or any other building without a risk assessment first.

“Our economy is struggling. We have an opportunity to start moving property again in the park and it’s not going to happen unless we do the risk mapping,” said Gorman.

Eisenbeisz then asked, “Who is telling us this is a must do?” City Attorney Robin Schmid chimed in, “I am.”

“Trying to protect the assets of the city is my job,” Schmid said. “And we’ve got a building down there that was damaged by a landslide. It just wouldn’t be prudent at all to turnaround and sell it. Have another slide hit it. We’d be looking at liability.”

In the end, the Assembly voted to award the contract 5-2, with Eisenbeisz and Swanson opposed. With these proposals, the Assembly continues to build upon the hard lessons learned from the August 18th landslides. Their hope is that, even if the mountains come down, the city has done the work to protect people and property down below.

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