Oso neighborhood never should have been built
TIMES WATCHDOG: The Steelhead Haven neighborhood near Oso that was destroyed by this year’s landslide should never have been built. The developer failed to secure a required flood plain permit, avoiding a process that would have warned of the dangers of building there.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Genevieve Taylor began placing ads in the summer of 1960.
A Ballard real-estate developer, she was opening a 48-acre retreat on the Stillaguamish River, an hour north of Seattle. Lots could be had for as little as $395. “Fishing, camping, sunbathing, hunting & HEAVENLY RELAXING from the privacy of your own all year-round fun-filled Riverfront Estate!” one ad in The Seattle Times said.
“You Can Almost Name Your Own Terms,” said another, imploring lookers not to hesitate. “You’ll want to have first choice.”
Within 15 months, Taylor sold 32 lots. She named the development Steelhead Haven.
It was a neighborhood that never should have been built.
This year, Steelhead Haven was destroyed by a massive landslide that crashed across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and killed 43 people.
More than a half-century ago, when Taylor opened the community, she failed to secure a required permit, avoiding a process that would have warned of the dangers of building there, according to a Seattle Times review of thousands of records in the Washington State Archives.
For all the exclamation points in its marketing campaign, Steelhead Haven was trouble from the get-go — for the people who built cabins there, only to find themselves threatened by an advancing river and unstable hill; for Taylor, who faced angry buyers threatening to sue; and for the state of Washington, which now had to contend with all these new property interests while trying to shore up a hill notorious for slipping away.
In a 1961 letter, a lawyer hired by the state spared no one. He lit into Taylor, mocking Steelhead Haven as a “disappointing real-estate adventure”; a cabin owner for exacerbating the river’s erosion of his property; and the state for allowing itself to “become mired in theoretical problems, which are conjured up in advance.”
A lost decade
In the summer of 1950, an officer with the Washington State Sportsmen’s Council wrote the state Department of Fisheries, urging it to do something about a slide-prone hill on the North Fork that was making the water “milky” and “virtually unfishable for 75 percent of the time.”
The officer’s concerns seemed more suited to the state Department of Game, which regulated sport fishing. Fisheries handled the commercial side. But the officer said the Game Department, after six years of promises, had nothing to show but a “makeshift deal, which collapsed with the first shower of rain.”
The Game Department’s director wrote a letter saying those fixes were of an “extremely temporary nature ... found to be completely unworkable.”
Both Game and Fisheries had a stake in the North Fork, which produced steelhead runs once celebrated by fly fishermen and salmon runs important to commercial fishing. In 1952 the two departments funded an engineering study to see what could be done.
The study, by the Seattle firm of William D. Shannon and Associates, noted that the hill had recently unleashed a mud flow that partially dammed the river. The Shannon report recommended a number of corrective measures, including revetments and drainage ditches, but said the “fundamental” step was to relocate the river, away from the hill. The report suggested moving it through the area that would become Steelhead Haven.
Relocating the channel figured to be expensive, in part because the state would need to buy some private land. The Fisheries Department asked Lars Langloe, supervisor of the state Department of Conservation and Development’s flood-control division, for his thoughts.
Forget draining the hill, Langloe wrote. Such attempts “can result in nothing but disappointments and waste of funds.” And forget a wall or dike. “This type of structure rarely if ever fulfills expectations,” he wrote. “Usually they are destroyed by the first or second high water that passes over them.” The only solution, he wrote, was to move the river.
The state believed it would cost at least $150,000 to pull this off. In 1952, the Game Department decided it would put up $75,000 if Fisheries would do the same. But Fisheries balked. The department’s director wrote that while the Game Department could tap a federal grant for its half, Fisheries had no such separate revenue source.
So despite the Shannon report’s recommendations, the 1950s ended without anything being done — no drainage, no revetment, no relocation of the river.
“Bring a picnic lunch”
In the fall of 1959, Genevieve Taylor submitted a proposed plat to the Snohomish County Planning Commission.
The plat took land she had purchased on the Stillaguamish River and mapped out a neighborhood — 48 acres, 82 lots, private roads, private wells, septic tanks. In November the planning director wrote to say the commission had approved the plat subject to several conditions, which included redesigning six lots, widening a road and getting the Health District’s approval of the sewage system.
The director’s letter made no mention of any permits needed from the state’s Division of Flood Control, part of the conservation department.
On July 17, 1960 — a week before the county formally approved the final plat — Taylor began placing ads to sell 79 of the properties. Fifty-one riverfront lots would go for $1,695 each, 28 rear lots for $395 to $995. This new community, Steelhead Haven, would have waterfront rights to a 200-foot beach and picnic area.
The ads invited visitors to take a look and “bring a picnic lunch.”
Old newspaper clips and public records provide some sketch of Taylor’s history. She was born in 1917 in North Dakota. When she was a baby, her family moved to Washington, where her mother worked in a dress shop, her father as a railway telegrapher. He died when Genevieve was still a child.
Genevieve married Marvin Taylor, a refrigeration mechanic for Sears, Roebuck & Co. He died in 1953 at age 40; she did not remarry. When her mother died in 1959, the obituary made no mention of Genevieve having any siblings.
In the summer of 1960 — when Steelhead Haven took off — Taylor, then 43, worked as an associate broker and secretary at a real-estate firm in Ballard. She quickly sold dozens of lots, giving rise to an ill-fated neighborhood.
“Disappointing real-estate adventure”
In the fall of 1960, months after Taylor began selling properties, the state returned to the idea of moving the river away from the slide. But now the government had a problem — new land owners, dozens of them, each with a property interest that would need to be bought up or worked around.
“This method is now impossible or very costly,” the Army Corps of Engineers wrote to the state. A Fisheries Department memo described the prospect as “extremely expensive.”
So the state went for cheap. For $15,000 — Fisheries put in $10,000, the Game Department $5,000 — the state in October 1960 built a gravel dike by having bulldozers push gravel against the hill. The Army Corps was not impressed, writing: “It is a distinct possibility that a good portion of this dike could be lost through the coming high-water season.”
When sport-fishing groups wrote to thank the state, the Fisheries director answered: “It is regrettable that we were unable to do a better job ...”
As the Corps predicted — and as the state’s flood expert had predicted in the ’50s — high water took out part of the dike just two months later. Soon, three-quarters of the levee was gone.
The state decided it needed a sturdier dike. Engineers for the Fisheries Department wanted to use steel interlocking piling, but the bids were too high. So the state opted for rock. The state asked the county for help, but the county engineer said he couldn’t even contribute trucks or equipment to the cause: “His budget wouldn’t stand it,” a Fisheries memo says.
That happened time and again. All kinds of governmental agencies — at a minimum: three federal, five state, two county — were involved or consulted in managing the slide, but none would put up the kind of money really needed.
To get rock over the river and to the hill, the state figured it would need to use a private road owned jointly by the people living in Steelhead Haven. That meant getting permission from all 32 owners.
The state sent letters to the property owners, describing its plans. One owner had no idea what the state was talking about. He wrote back: “However, and seriously, we are not acquainted with the slide area referred to. Where is it located ...”
Taylor was one of the owners — and she refused to go along. She wrote Fisheries in 1961, saying that when the state built the gravel dike, its heavy equipment had damaged a neighborhood road, costing her $650 to repair. She also said one cabin owner blamed the dike for forcing the river south, costing him 10 to 15 feet of riverbank. He was now threatening to sue Taylor.
“I have many thousands of dollars in this land project which I cannot afford to lose through possible unfavorable results of this proposed river project,” she wrote.
The Fisheries Department consulted an Everett lawyer, Lewis Bell, who didn’t think much of Taylor’s concerns. The state’s bulldozers didn’t use that road, Bell wrote. They went across a field. As for the cabin owner, he had “cleared all of the brush” off his river bank, commencing “appreciable erosion thereof.”
“The truth of the matter,” Bell wrote, is “Mrs. Taylor would like to use the Department as a source of funds for the development of what otherwise appears to be a disappointing real-estate adventure.”
Ultimately, the state avoided Steelhead Haven by crossing the river upstream, then building a road down to the slide area. The state spent $25,500 to install a 450-foot wall of riprap rock, much shorter than it would have liked.
Sporting groups from the Pinehurst Sportsmen’s Club to the Snohomish County Bowmen wrote the state to say thank you. Cabin owners wrote to complain.
One said his cabin would soon be in the middle of the river and suggested the state “buy our property at a fair price and have at it.”
Another, Carl Burgeson, said flooding caused by the state’s work had cost him 5 feet of bank and three trees. He bought 100 burlap bags to fill with sand to hold the river back.
The state Attorney General’s Office wrote to several owners, saying the state wasn’t to blame. Any soil erosion was an act of God, the letters said. A Fisheries memo said “under no circumstances” should the department give any indication that its dike was responsible for property damage.
The rock dike didn’t fully satisfy those wanting to fish the North Fork. Eighteen Snohomish County residents signed a petition to Gov. Albert Rosellini, urging the Fisheries and Game departments to fix the slide.
The governor’s office suggested they take it up with legislators.
In 1963 the state government considered extending the dike. The county pitched in by trying to secure easements from the Steelhead Haven property owners. But some balked, telling the county engineer: “The money could be better spent elsewhere.”
So the state again worked around the neighborhood. In 1964, the Fisheries and Game departments spent $25,000 to extend the rock dike by another 250 feet — still, much shorter than it would have liked.
With the cost of the Shannon report thrown in, the state in the 1950s and ’60s spent a total of $73,000 on the slide. An undated memo in the state archives shows what the state got for its money.
The Shannon report had emphasized the need to divert water from the slide. But the state’s dike “was impervious and held water into the slide,” the memo said. That could have made matters worse. Plus, the dike was improperly constructed and insufficiently inspected, the memo said.
In 1965, the state asked the Army Corps of Engineers to fix two slides — the one next to Steelhead Haven and another by Gold Basin Campground — to make up for the fishery losses caused by a dredging project the Corps was planning elsewhere in Snohomish County.
In 1966 the Corps refused, saying it couldn’t justify the cost.
The hill comes down
On Jan. 7, 1967, the hill fell away, releasing a slice of clay about 800 feet long and 300 feet high.
“The whole mountain just slid into the river,” one resident told a reporter.
At least 25 cabins were damaged or destroyed. At least 48 lots were flooded out, according to county property records.
Legislators began asking questions. In February, John Biggs, director of the Game Department, wrote a state senator to say the Game and Fisheries departments had opted for a levee because they couldn’t afford to do more. “It was always understood that the slide would inevitably overwhelm this levee,” Biggs wrote.
Thor Tollefson, Fisheries director, wrote a state representative: “We would point out that the developers of Steelhead Haven at no time had any state sanction to develop recreation tracts and summer home sites in this area.”
In Olympia, state Sen. William Gissberg, of Lake Stevens, called a meeting with experts from three state agencies, according to stories published in The Seattle Times and the Everett Herald.
The state’s flood-control supervisor, Gregory Hastings, testified the area had been classified as a flood plain, which meant Taylor needed a permit from the Flood Control Division. But she never requested one.
The North Fork had once run through what became Steelhead Haven, according to old aerial photographs. In the early 20th century the land was owned by Elsa Warburton’s family, according to a letter she wrote to the Times after the 1967 slide. Her stepfather planted hay there in 1924, only to see the river change channels, moving into the field and taking out sheds and chicken coops. Her family never knew when they might wake to find themselves on the “other side of the river,” she wrote.
Hastings said the state could put an end to any unauthorized development, if life or property were endangered. But he questioned if it were worth the cost.
State engineers estimated it would take at least $300,000 to stabilize the hill, a figure that didn’t include the expense of buying up private properties. They also testified the slide was still “precarious.”
Biggs told Gissberg that his department and Fisheries wound up doing all the work on the hill, even though neither was responsible for flood-control work.
“There has been responsibility passing — almost classically,” he testified.
At the end of the hearing, Gissberg said more information would be needed before the state could decide what to do next.
Four decades would pass before the state would again try to shore up the hill.
Although no one was injured, the 1967 slide decimated Steelhead Haven.
A 1969 county memo said the plat was mostly vacant, with a few scattered vacation cabins and mobile homes.
But in 1970, building resumed. Three new homes went up on East Steelhead Drive, and more would follow.
That same year, Taylor was elected president of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce.
She died in 2001, at age 83, leaving an estate valued at $1.4 million. She didn’t have children; in her will, she bequeathed her home and furnishings to a friend she had met ballroom dancing. The rest she divided among four recipients — three shares to charities for arthritis, cancer and heart disease, and the fourth to the televangelism association of Robert Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral in California.
Of the development’s first cabins, one of the few to get passed down was the one built in 1961 by Carl Burgeson, the owner who once turned to sandbags to protect his property. Carl and his wife, Alice, found the site through a newspaper ad, said their son, Dale. Carl had just retired from Shell Oil while Alice loved to fish.
“My dad said the price was just right,” Dale Burgeson said.
The cabin went through several owners, the last being Jerry Logan, who bought it for $70,000 in 2003.
Logan and his longtime partner, Shelley Bellomo, were among those killed in this year’s landslide.
Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report. Mike Baker: 206-464-2729 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or email@example.com.
Information in this article, originally published June 7, 2014, was corrected June 11, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Lewis Bell was a Seattle attorney. His practice was in Everett.