Mukilteo Beacon - Your Hometown News Source

Residents restless over road closure


August 23, 2017

Sylvia Kawabata walks among debris sitting along a damaged portion of 61st Place West in Mukilteo on Monday evening, Aug. 21. Kawabata, secretary of the Smuggler’s Gulch Homeowners Association, lives on a private road that has seen an increase in traffic from local residents since the city closed a portion of the only public road into the neighborhood after a mudslide in February. “I want the city to be responsible for their road and open it up,” she said.

Ever since a February mudslide forced the city of Mukilteo to close the only public road to homes in Smuggler’s Gulch, a handful of residents have had to make a choice: travel the closed road anyway or use their neighbors’ private road.

“They’re between a rock and a hard place – are they going to trespass on our private driveway or break the city’s rules?” said Mary Bess Johnson, who lives along the winding quarter-mile, single-lane road that she and several neighbors maintain at their own expense.

“After the landslide closed the public road, we were willing to give our neighbors temporary access to our driveway, but for how long?”

Six months after heavy rains caused mud and plant debris to slide down a steep slope above a small section of 61st Place West, that section remains closed, leaving some four residences with no public way in or out.

“We’ve seen much bigger slides on that road over the years,” said Ken Milner, who has lived at the bottom of 61st Place West since 1987. He’s one of the residents who owns the private road, which connects the bottom of 61st Place West with 88th Street Southwest up the hill.

“This is probably the sixth slide that has crossed that road [61st Place West] to the extent that the city has had to do something about it, yet it’s the first time they haven’t fixed it in a matter of hours or days.”

Jan and Ken Livingston have lived on 61st Place West since they built their home there in 1978. They said they’ve seen some 16 slides occur in their neighborhood over the years.

“This most recent slide was the least damaging one I’ve seen,” Ken Livingston said. “And I can’t think of a time when it took more than five days for the county or the city to clear and open the road.”

The Livingstons received a letter from the city’s Community Development Director, Patricia Love, a week after the Feb. 16 slide informing them that clearing and re-opening the road had been deemed unsafe by a geotechnical consultant, so the road would remain closed indefinitely. That letter also said the city would be unable to provide fire protection and medical aid service to residences beyond the slide site.

“That was pretty shocking news,” Ken Livingston sad. “I figured the closure would only last a few weeks, and now it’s been 6 months.”

Livingston said he and a neighbor took it upon themselves to clear one lane of the road in the weeks after the slide. Since then, he and others have used the road in spite of signs and moveable barricades.

“We pay property taxes to the city so we deserve access to that city road,” he said, noting that he still sees city vehicles, Mukilteo Water and Wastewater District vehicles and even UPS delivery trucks using the road.

“People do drive on it every day, and they are putting their lives at risk,” said Mick Matheson, the city’s Public Works Director. “It’s closed because our insurance company looked at the risks and recommended we close it. If there were an accident, the city would probably still get sued.”

Matheson said residents can rest assured that fire and medical services would respond beyond the closure in the case of an emergency.

“If somebody has a heart attack or a stroke, fire would respond,” he said.

Residents said they’ve been asking city officials for months why the road hasn’t been opened. Matheson said city officials don’t mean to come off as evasive.

“Honestly, the city wants to be open and not hide here at City Hall,” he said. “We’re not ignoring the situation, but we also don’t hold all the cards.”

Matheson said the city’s attorneys are working to get a resident who lives atop the slope, John Morrow, to stabilize it so the road can be re-opened.

“The question is whose responsibility is it to secure that slope,” said Zach Lell, an attorney for the city. “The city had been trying to get the property owner to take steps to stabilize that slope. The response from the landowner is he doesn’t have to do that, that it’s the city’s responsibility. He says the city’s roadway has been the source of the slope’s instability. Obviously, I see no basis for that.”

The area was originally platted in 1947 as Olympus Terrace and all roads were private, Matheson said. Within months, those private roads were dedicated for public use by Snohomish County, he said. The area was replatted in 1964. In 1980, Mukilteo annexed the area – some 10 years before the Harbour Pointe annexation.

Everett attorney Bill Foster represents Morrow. He said the city is responsible for the road’s right-of-way, which extends some distance up the slope. He also said the original excavation of the roadway weakened the slope.

“It was the excavation of that road that weakened the slope and led, to some degree, to the slide,” Foster said. “At a very minimum, it’s our position that the city needs to take care of its property.”

Residents who live below Morrow said they suspect the slope may have been weakened last fall when they saw Morrow cutting trees and clearing vegetation.

“I’ve never seen someone cut so thoroughly,” Livingston said.

After the slide, residents said the city red tagged Morrow’s home, meaning it was too dangerous to inhabit. They said Morrow constructed a wall near the top of the slope to protect his house from sliding.

Livingston said he hopes the city takes charge of its legal dispute with Morrow, otherwise he and other affected residents might take legal action themselves.

“I am getting real tired of standing on the sidelines here,” he said. “Eventually, when things get desperate enough, we’ll borrow money and sue the city.”

This photo shows the closed section of 61st Place West days after a February mudslide.

The tipping point, Milner added, will likely come when Livingston and others physically cannot drive through the closed section of the road.

“As soon as people physically can no longer go that way, it will force people to use our private road,” Milner said. “That will just pit neighbor against neighbor, and I want to avoid that.”

Livingston said he feels residents have little leverage with the city because so few are directly affected by the closure. Milner agreed, saying he suspects residents are merely pawns in the city’s legal dispute over who will pay to secure the slope.

“They are playing a legal game,” Milner said. “If they weren’t, if this were a real safety issue, why wouldn’t they just put up a concrete barricade to block the road for good?”


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