Beach Drive slides briefing: Muddy mess, legal tangle

(January 2010 WSB reader photo)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

After two slides in less than a year – most recently, last month – with a road surface crumbling, a fire hydrant buried, and nearby residents afraid for their safety, why isn’t the Beach Drive SW (map) slide situation resolved yet?

That’s the question the City Council Transportation Committee put this morning to the directors of the two city agencies that are involved – the Department of Transportation and the Department of Planning and Development. Its chair Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who lives in the Beach Drive/Alki area, expressed frustration, as did a slide-neighboring (across Beach Drive) resident, Mike Winter, speaking in the public-comment time period before the meeting:

He noted that two upslope homes have been recently “yellow-tagged,” which DPD director Diane Sugimura later explained means flagged for safety concerns – in this case, residents were warned not to use their decks, because the footings aren’t stable. Winter also told the committee about the mud-swamped fire hydrant, which SDOT director Peter Hahn said that Seattle Public Utilities is “taking care of.”

Winter also recounted the problems caused when the persistent slope runoff froze recently (January 2nd WSB photo above). He implored city leaders to “stop the blame game” and just “fix .. the hillside. … We need to fix it now before the entire hillside comes down.”

However, the “blame game” to some degree resurfaced shortly thereafter when DPD’s Sugimura and a rep from the City Attorney’s Office discussed a lawsuit that has been in progress for almost two years and does not appear to be likely to get resolved any time soon.

They said the city filed a lawsuit in April 2009 – we are trying to track down a copy of that lawsuit – and it was scheduled for a hearing in fall 2010. The City Attorney’s Office had been trying to reach a settlement but says “last week, the defendant pulled out” and the case is now set for trial this spring – though, it was noted that the city believes the defendant is seeking new representation “who might try to move it to Superior Court, and that could add more delay. … It’s a frustrating process for us, having the negotiations fall apart under us.”

The “defendant” was never identified by name or address in the hearing; later, it was acknowledged that the councilmembers had too many specific questions to ask in an open hearing, so they will schedule this issue for an “executive session” closed hearing at some point in the future.

What preceded the lawsuit was described by Sugimura as “a violation” issued in 2008, involving “fill that wasn’t approved” in the Environmentally Critical Area of the slope – the “landslide-prone area (was) disturbed … by doing that”; she said they sought to “require stabilization and a permit for the unpermitted retaining wall built on the south end of the property … also (there was) a code issue, that work was done not ‘per plan’ in terms of working in the disturbance area that as identified.”

She said the city had a “potential landslide area covenant” on file, signed by the owner, identifying the “potential disturbance area,” which she said is routine for such areas and puts the property owner on the record of being aware of the risks. (Before the specifics of this situation were discussed, the city reps and councilmembers discussed the process of granting building permits for this kind of area. Councilmember Nick Licata wondered if such permits should be granted at all.)

Whatever is or isn’t going on in court, Councilmember Rasmussen said, what is being done or can be done to “keep the hillside from sliding”? Told “it’s private property,” the councilmember retorted, “But it’s damaging city property.”

Councilmember Sally Clark asked if it was considered an imminent threat, and if action could be taken based on that; Sugimura elaborated on the “yellow-tagging” of two homes on the slope, mentioning the perceived deck-use hazard but saying it didn’t mean the residents “can’t be in the house.” She and SDOT’s Hahn both reiterated that “geotechs” (geotechnical engineers) are continuing to watch the situation.

(WSB photo, taken today)
Hahn talked about the “ecology blocks” that form a retaining wall along the east side of Beach Drive in the slide zone and said they seem to be working so far. But, he acknowledged, “The road condition has deteriorated – it’s not a great road. There are a number of measures we need to be taking to steer some of the water away from creating some of the conditions mentioned by Mr. Winter. … We’re going to continually monitor the performance of the ‘ecology blocks’ to make sure the material (sliding down behind it) doesn’t over-top it. And there are some worsened potholes that could use some attention.”

Despite all that, Hahn said the “road bed” does not appear to be in danger of failing.

From there, the aforementioned future “executive session” was decided on, but Councilmember Rasmussen said he would commit to neighbors to “do all we can to protect you” as well as city property and public safety. He also suggested that DPD and SDOT be more aggressive in letting neighbors know what is being done – even if there is not much major action to report, keeping them informed that the situation has not fallen off the radar.

29 Replies to "Beach Drive slides briefing: Muddy mess, legal tangle"

  • stuart January 25, 2011 (1:04 pm)

    The substance of the public discussion was that any decisions made on the situation will occur behind closed doors.

  • chas redmond January 25, 2011 (2:27 pm)

    I would not call this transparent government. In fact, I would call this obstructing. I’m surprised Peter Hahn is not being more open. It certainly doesn’t bode well when private citizens can wantonly walk away from damage to an entire community. I also hope they are able to afford the civil engineering design and work which they caused to be needed. Better still would be the Kharma of their house(s) literally falling down the hill.

  • PeterT January 25, 2011 (2:46 pm)

    Heard some work going on there today. Went down to check it out, and an asphalt rill has been put in, running parallel to the Jersey barriers. It d diverts water from running across the street, and instead guides it to along the curb northward, and then down the incline north on Beach Drive.

    They’ve also filled a couple of the holes in the street.

  • Eliza January 25, 2011 (4:23 pm)

    I know a really great lawyer for the houses around the slide when they become damaged. (sorry about the ‘when’ not ‘if’ but it seems inevitable.) Richard Maloney who works in WS and has experience with these types of cases.

  • Nulu January 25, 2011 (6:07 pm)

    Once again the ugly heads of ignorance rise and speak when the subject of hillside slides appears on WSB.
    This time the usually reasonable and positive comments of Chas Redmond are contravened by his not backed up claim,

    “It certainly doesn’t bode well when private citizens can wantonly walk away from damage to an entire community.”

    If Mr. Redmond had read some of the long line of articles on this area, he would know that no one is “wantonly walking away from damage.”
    And if he is aware, in his frequent walks around West Seattle, that the bluffs all over continue to slide as they have for the past millenniums?

    Which homes made the hillside slides in Lincoln Park this year?

  • Rhonda Porter January 25, 2011 (6:57 pm)

    It’s surprising to me how much of this information is not public record.

  • WSB January 25, 2011 (7:51 pm)

    Rhonda – the city attorney’s office didn’t answer my inquiry today requesting more info on the lawsuit. I may not have used the correct search terms yet but if I can’t find it online by tomorrow, I will go to the courthouse and get a copy there. Have been spending plenty of time there lately, what’s another trip… TR

  • steve January 25, 2011 (7:58 pm)

    chas you may want to give some thought to your own karma

  • chas redmond January 25, 2011 (8:51 pm)

    My point is that for 3 years after a determination that a causation by a landowner is the root of slides in an area where the impact is to anyone living, walking, biking or riding through that stretch of Beach Drive, there is still no solution to the ongoing slide condition. No geotech re-engineering has occurred. Landowners below and adjacent are threatened, as is their lives and their peace of mind. Why has this not been solved by the city in whatever manner is requited? How much weight does a single property owner have versus a community? Landowners near Lowman Beach will see a possible eminent domain action on their land because of the overall requirement of the County sewer folks. Why is not SDOT doing the same thing here for the benefit of Beach Drive and the adjacent and down-hill residents? Just seems to me that a single landowner and legal issues with the city are holding up a safety fix for a much larger number of residents and visitors. My karma, thank you, is actually doing quite fine.

  • chas redmond January 25, 2011 (8:51 pm)

    And, yes, I’ve been following this since the beginning. I can walk to this spot and often do. You seem to somehow be providing cover for the original illegal act. A more interesting question would be why is DPD still permitting construction in slide areas?

  • Nulu January 25, 2011 (9:55 pm)

    Chas appears to be confusing the issues.

    One is contaminated toxic runoff from the complete area our streets, nitrogen from our lawns and fecal matter from our pets that is getting swept during storm events directly into Puget Sound thereby violating state and federal mandates.

    While the other is the localized failure of a hillside that has a history of failure far before the localized development.

    If only anyone could “solve” the problem. This very hillside has long had the attention of civil and geotechnical engineers. There are existing remnant “french drains” and pipes from WPA era attempts to drain water strewn over the hill.
    As teenager in the sixties, my buddies and I spent a wet muddy weekend shoveling sliding mud away from the back wall of Mr. Evans’ house 100′ north on Beach Drive.

    It is unfortunate that we cannot be given by WSB what are preliminary and not yet complete factual reports of certainly complex issues without resorting to nasty innuendos and karma challenges.

    I too, welcome full disclosure and transparent government. All sides are compromised by secrecy.

  • Upset January 25, 2011 (11:41 pm)

    Over the holidays, the property owner responded to frustrated comments about this issue, laying out all the details to suggest he was the victim in all of this.

    Now today we learn how he is flouting the city codes and law, has pulled out of the agreement he told us all he was close to reaching with the city back in December, and is about to pursue other delaying tactics by switching council and trying to get this case moved to Superior Court, so that the whole thing drags on and on and on — continually endangering our neighborhood, street, and residents, not to mention making the whole area look like a war zone.

    Have some decency and take care of your responsibilities! When we bought our house on Beach Drive 11 years ago, we received papers in the mail within 2 months ordering us to repair our sidewalks. You know what we did? We organized 4 neighbors in a row who also received such notices to get the work done immediately and seamlessly, without several different masons involved — so that our sidewalks wouldn’t continue endangering pedestrians and runners.

    It makes my blood boil that others can’t uphold their responsibilities to their neighbors.

    The property owner claimed he didn’t violate any codes or building permits — that’s certainly not what DPD believes.

    How do we all band together as neighbors to encourage him to stop wasting time and money and threatening safety?

  • Upset January 25, 2011 (11:44 pm)

    Also, at the Transportation Committee meeting today, the folks from DPD and SDOT said they are meeting tomorrow — Wednesday — night with Mr. Winter and others. Is this meeting open to other Beach Drive residents in the area? If so, I would like to attend. If anyone has details of the time and and place, please share them.

    • WSB January 25, 2011 (11:50 pm)

      Upset, I am trying to get that information too. SDOT did not answer the inquiry I sent in late morning, which is unusual because its media team is generally very responsive. So I’m trying again bright and early, and trying a few other sources – TR

  • nulu January 26, 2011 (12:44 am)

    I am pleased that Upset has confirmed the problem was there at least eleven years ago when Upset moved in.
    That makes it eight years before the violation.
    In the spirit of neighborly cooperation that Upset reflects upon, lets hope Upset extends such entreaties to the uphill neighbors also.

  • nulu January 26, 2011 (12:51 am)

    Chas states, “a determination that a causation by a landowner is the root of slides”.
    Is anyone else privy to this information?
    What determination of root cause was made and by who?

  • sean January 26, 2011 (6:42 am)

    I did see that all the trees on the slope had been cut down months before the first slide event occurred in that area. May just be a coincidence?

  • Upset January 26, 2011 (10:25 am)

    Sean, I was pretty positive the homeowner cut down a ton of trees prior to/during construction, but he denied that during his holiday posting. There is not nearly enough proper vegetation on that hillside; this is only making matters worse.

    Nulu, the 11-year old problem I was referring to was our sidewalks — not the destabilization of the hillside due to improper building.

  • Michael Steiner January 26, 2011 (11:07 am)

    You guys need to get the mayor’s office involved. This road obstruction is clearly a hazard for bicyclists!


  • Jim January 26, 2011 (11:19 am)

    To Upset and other Beach Drive hill slide neighbors:

    The meeting tonight between representatives of DPD, SDOT, and the immediate neighborhood is already a full house. But we will try and keep you posted about future developments.

  • Joanne Hedou January 26, 2011 (12:06 pm)

    I’ve been driving by this slide for two years. I used to review landslide hazards for King County. These cases often take a long time to resolve. The City probably has a similar review process to the County and would have, I think, required geotechnical review before building but I found the system somewhat flawed when I worked under it. It depended a lot on which engineer was hired, what the homeowner wanted them to report and how much money the applicant had. The reviews process can be quite long and expensive so if they had assets the applicant could keep filing variances until they got what they wanted. Again, this was the County’s process.

    I just look at the whole thing as human arrogance when people defy nature to build in a place like this and a reflection of the awesome power of nature that they can’t always defeat.

    What about the people further down the street that are installing an apparently non-engineered rock wall? That one has me wondering.

  • Upset January 26, 2011 (12:37 pm)

    Jim — Would you please post a summary of tonight’s meeting? Also just curious what defines immediate neighborhood? We’re not directly opposite the slide, but are within a handful of houses.

  • Rhonda Porter January 26, 2011 (1:37 pm)

    Check out the link at the bottom of this post:

    It’s a recorded document for a home around 6300 Beach Drive where the owners acknowledged the risk of landslides & possibility of death by land or mudslide.

    • WSB January 26, 2011 (1:39 pm)

      I just got a copy of the lawsuit this morning from the city attorney’s office – will be publishing a separate update.

  • Nulu January 26, 2011 (4:01 pm)

    “Nulu, the 11-year old problem I was referring to was our sidewalks — not the destabilization of the hillside due to improper building.” – Upset

    Upset, do you actually believe the galloping of the road and sidewalk on Beach Drive for decades has nothing to do with the hillside and soil stability? For someone who has been there for 11 years, that is an incredibly naive belief and embarrassing falsehood.

    Upset’s pronouncements about vegetation are breath taking in their ignorance. A knowledgeable WSB post about this slide by Maria- explains a more nuanced truth.

  • Vladimir January 26, 2011 (5:09 pm)

    @Nulu- I’m somewhat confused as to the nature and intent of your defense of the said homeowner here. You’ve clearly stated that the destabilization of the hillside has been well established and occurring for some time, meanwhile denouncing as ignorance any suggestion that recent alterations to the landscape have contributed to the present situation. Given that your client/friend/family member proceeded to build a home in an area of historical geo-instability are they completely exonerated of any responsibility here? Good luck with this one in court.

  • Nulu January 26, 2011 (11:10 pm)

    I am happy to clear up your confusions.
    I did not nor do I claim that code violations are completely exonerated nor that recent alterations to the landscape have not contributed to the present situation.

    I argue for a nuanced truth, accepting the facts that this is a historically unstable hillside, there are many houses on the top and the bottom of the hill in what is now defined as Critical Areas that have been there for 100 years, and before that the hillside was clear cut.
    Seattle has just received a 100 year storm event that exceeded the capacity of our drains.
    All of these elements combine to provide the muddy mess as well as possible errors and omissions by the geotechnical and civil engineers for both Seattle DPD and the builder who signed off and monitored the work and the builder himself.
    I hesitate to charge, as others do, that the whole problem was caused by tree removal and or by the new home replacing the old one.
    Such charges are from a place of ignorance.

    I wrote before and the same holds true now, I do not know nor have I met the homeowner. I do not work for him, his company or anyone else. I do not in any manner represent him or his family and, to the best of my knowledge, we are not related!

  • Vladimir January 27, 2011 (12:32 pm)


    Congratulations, your pursuit for ‘nuanced truth’ here has just resulted in more obfuscation. Well done!

  • nulu January 27, 2011 (2:42 pm)

    Ok Vladimir,
    I am an convinced that you can not grasp that there may have been other factors such as an one hundred year storm event, a long established history of slides and any errors or omissions on the part of the City or the homeowner.
    I hope we can agree that recent alterations to the landscape are a likely suspect and there are charges and a lawsuit.
    I disagree when you claim my, “denouncing as ignorance any suggestion that recent alterations to the landscape have contributed to the present situation.”
    I denounce as ignorant claims that none of the variables listed had anything to do with the lack of hillside stability.

Sorry, comment time is over.