Sitka considers code changes in landslide zones

If the critical areas ordinance passes on June 27th, it would change development rules for South Kramer Avenue. An outside firm mapped the area for landslide risk in the aftermath of the August 18, 2015 landslides. (Map from Shannon & Wilson South Kramer report)

The state is currently mapping the potential risk for landslides in Sitka. This time next year, the Sitka Assembly will be presented with a community-wide map. Whether they adopt the maps or not, city staff wanted to be prepared for how the information could affect property development. They presented their critical areas ordinance (Ord 2017-14) to the Sitka Assembly on June 13.

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This is a policy rooted in tragedy.

“We all remember August 18th, 2015. Over 65 landslides hit Baranof Island that day,” Sitka Community Affairs Director Maegan Bosak said at the start of her presentation. “We had extremely heavy rainfall in the morning and a shift of wind patterns that left our community reeling over the tragic loss of life and damage to property.”

Future development in Sitka is now a fraught enterprise, particularly in the South Kramer and Gary Paxton Industrial Park areas. Bosak said this leaves the city in a tough position and in writing the critical areas ordinance, staff looked to other places with hazardous land.

“We’ve compared other municipalities, specifically Juneau – they have both a hazard, landslide, and avalanche area – Seattle, and Snohomish County. We’ve included outside counsel in drafting and review. And really struggled with this ordinance all personally. It’s really the argument of what is the role of government. Where do we step in? And what is that demand for public safety or the need to develop?” Bosak said.

Right now, the city cannot issue permits in landslide areas unless the homeowner pays for a geotechnical evaluation and any necessary mitigation. Under this new critical areas ordinance (Ord 2017-14), the homeowner can waive that requirement.

That person would sign a covenant with the city that would be tied to the deed of the land, “stating that essentially that they know and accept the risks and are protecting the municipality from financial liability,” Bosak explained.

Subdivisions and high occupancy buildings would not qualify for this waiver option. Future homeowners could cancel that covenant at any time.

The Assembly had mixed opinions on how this, with some wondering how designating land as “risky” could change its value, development, and financing. Would a bank be reluctant to loan money for a house on the Benchlands?

Planning Director Michael Scarcelli said that is beyond the city’s control and the market for supplemental insurance is growing. Homes in Juneau have been able to access “difference in conditions” insurance, or DIC, that is designed to cover catastrophes the broader insurance market won’t touch.

Scarcelli pointed out that an ordinance like this may be inevitable, as the federal government pushes for GIS mapping. FEMA recently published drafts of a multi-hazard map for Sitka, which the Assembly will review next year.

“Those private [insurance] markets – whether the Sitka Assembly would adopt those [flood] maps – might use those for those risk actuary analysis,” Scarcelli said. 

Some on the Assembly were ill at ease with continued hazard mapping in Sitka, with Steven Eisenbeisz worrying about homeowners who suddenly find themselves in a high risk area. As for the critical areas ordinance, he said, “it scares me.”

“It seems like the city is just trying to wash its hands of any responsibility here. We’re just trying to step back and say, ‘Yeah no, let’s not be a part of this.’ But there’s still something in here that’s unsettling to me,” Eisenbeisz said.

Kevin Knox reasoned that landowners have their hands tied as is, under current rules, and saw the ordinance as a move in the right direction. “There are landowners right now that are hamstrung. They can’t do anything,” Knox said.

Mayor Matthew Hunter went so far as to say that this ordinance gives rights back to property owners. “If I owned a lot that was in a risky area and I wanted to use it, I’d say, ‘I own this property but why can’t I use it? I’ll sign a waiver that says I recognize this is dangerous, but just let me do what I want to do.’”

That may come to pass if the Assembly gives the critical areas ordinance final approval at their next meeting on June 27th. They passed the ordinance on first reading Tuesday night 5-2, with Eisenbeisz and Aaron Bean voting no.