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County explores road options for Ledgewood

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson addresses a concern voiced by Driftwood Way resident Arthur Nowell during a meeting in Coupeville last week. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson addresses a concern voiced by Driftwood Way resident Arthur Nowell during a meeting in Coupeville last week.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Driftwood Way residents in the Ledgewood community will have to rely on a tiny, single-lane gravel road as the sole access to the homes for at least two years.

That was one of the messages that came from a community meeting in Coupeville last week.

The meeting involved Island County officials and Central Whidbey residents affected by a massive landslide this past March.

The nearly 100 residents in attendance also got new information from experts about what may have caused the landslide, heard how the county plans to deal with stormwater problems and what the future may hold for the destroyed section of Driftwood Way.

 

ROAD ISSUES seemed to touch the most nerves. Many made it clear they think the county is failing to live up to its obligation to homeowners.

“These are not just summer residences that can be ignored,” said Arthur Nowell, a Driftwood Way resident.

Island County Public Works Director Bill Oakes said the area around the old road is still dangerous and that it will be at least two years before engineers will know whether the two-lane road can ever be repaired.

The spring landslide demolished a large section of the road, effectively cutting off vehicular access to a small neighborhood. Although an emergency road was constructed, many said they want Driftwood Way rebuilt and were highly skeptical of the county’s explanation.

 

GREG COSGROVE said he finds it hard to believe the area could be all that dangerous when county workers just built a dirt road – separate from the emergency gravel road – right through a large swath of the debris field to allow a drilling rig to dig core samples.

“You let rigs that weigh 10 tons on that road and you won’t let me take my Volkswagen across it?” asked Cosgrove, a Driftwood Way resident.

“No, I don’t buy that.”

J. Gordon, principal geotechnical engineer with Seattle-based GeoEngineers – the county’s hired consultant – agrees with Oakes assessment.

“The material below (the dirt road) is literally pancake batter,” said Gordon, adding that winter rains may significantly impact the area’s stability.

Gordon started the meeting with a lengthy history lesson that covered everything from past landslides in Ledgewood and the findings of other experts hired years before to all the efforts undertaken since the March event.

 

AS FOR what triggered the landslide, there appears to be no “smoking gun.” Rather, experts say it was the result of several factors in an area that has been highly unstable for thousands of years.

Contributors include erosion of the bottom portion of the bluff, which acts as a stop for the material above, climate change resulting in heavy rainfall and changes to surface water, and heavy saturation from ground water.

The larger Ledgewood area appears to be safe, but the upcoming rainy season may cause more problems around the slide area, particularly for the few homes red or yellow tagged.

“During this winter, who knows what’s going to happen,” Gordon said. “There is no way to predict the areas right adjacent to that slide because it’s just too active.”

 

WITH MANY unknowns, Gordon said he would not recommend rebuilding Driftwood Way. The temporary dirt road built could disappear tomorrow; there is just no way to know, he said.

“This road could go away overnight,” he said.

Attendees also appeared united in the their displeasure over the gravel emergency road, which was built shortly after the landslide occurred.

The county commissioners approved a declaration of emergency, which gave them special powers, and the road was constructed on private property.

The declaration has since been rescinded and Oakes has argued that care of the road must be passed to residents.

Because it’s on private property, funding any maintenance would be a gift of public funds.

“I’m telling you we can’t spend public money on private propery,” he said.

 

OAKES’ POSITION is hotly contested.

Lowell, an oceanography professor at the University of Washington, argued that the restriction only applies to certain funds, a point Oakes concedes may be true.

“I want to make that point very, very strongly in front of everybody,” Lowell said.

Also, the road is officially designated as “primitive” and state law absolves counties that build them from any liability.

That is not the case, however, if the road is privately owned.

 

ISLAND COUNTY Commissioner Helen Price Johnson addressed the issue during the meeting.

This is an unusual situation which presents legal questions that have yet to be answered, she said.

“I don’t have those answers today but I am pursuing that,” Price Johnson said.

“It’s not quite as simple from where I’m sitting as it is from where Arthur is sitting.”

Many residents voiced concern that the road is an accident waiting to happen and that liability will fall on their shoulders. Some are so worried they inquired about rumors that the county is considering buying out some homeowners.

“That is not true,” said Oakes, earning a round of healthy laughter throughout the room.

“I thought I would ask because I would sell you ours,” Kim Dales said.

 

OAKES SAID he is looking into the possibility of an agreement that would allow the county to assume temporary stewardship of the road until the fate of Driftwood Way is determined.

Oakes asked for patience, saying the landslide’s aftermath created problems he’s never dealt with before.

“As I told the commissioner, I’m making this up because we haven’t done this before,” Oakes said. “I haven’t found anyone who’s done this before.”

 

WHILE OAKES was on the hot seat for much of the meeting, several in the group conceded these are complex issues and sometimes the answers aren’t clear.

“I know we have concerns, things that are not solved and I know that we all have questions and different ways of thinking about this,” said Jan Wright, president of the Ledgewood Beach Property Owners Association.

“But I do think we want to thank these folks who have come out to help us. They came when we needed them and they are still working on this no matter how hard it’s gotten. Thank you all for being here.”

Her comments earned applause throughout the room and ended the meeting.

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