Ledgewood homeowners sue Island County

Residents of a Central Whidbey neighborhood struck by a massive landslide two years ago have filed lawsuits against Island County.

The residents are claiming that the county was negligent and contributed to the event. They also say the county failed to properly maintain a public road.

Seattle attorney Karen Willie filed two lawsuits against the county in connection with the March 27, 2013 landslide at Ledgewood, south of Coupeville.

The two lawsuits were filed in both the Snohomish County and Island County superior courts last month; Willie said she wants the case to be heard in Snohomish County while Island County’s attorney said he will likely argue to have it in Island County, though he hasn’t made a final determination.

The lawsuits ask for unspecified damages and court orders forcing the county to own and maintain two roads that provide access to homes close to the landslide area.

Willie, who said she’s known affectionately as “the water witch,” specializes in both bringing lawsuits and defending against lawsuits involving damage caused by landslides. She said her firm is representing six families struck by the Oso landslide, including three that lost loved ones.

The lawsuits alleges fault against county officials for not dealing with drainage issues properly in the well-known landslide area, but also asserts that county workers did nothing after seeing dirt and trees fall from the bluff — allegedly “the start of the slide” — the day before the massive slide occurred.

“The Island County workers fled without notifying the residents,” the lawsuit states, “and took no steps thereafter to alert the residents of Bon Air and Ledgewood of the potential hazards.”

Mark Johnsen, a Seattle attorney representing Island county, said the county denies liability for causing the landslide.

“We don’t believe the landslide was caused by anything the county did,” he said.

“We don’t see any indication it was caused by surface water from county roads. It was primarily a groundwater event,” he added.

Johnsen said a geotechnical firm has been monitoring ground movement in the area to see if it would be safe to rebuild Driftwood Way, which was partially destroyed in the slide. He said it looks like the county may be able to rebuild the road if the funding is available but that it would have to go through an extensive design process.

He said he doesn’t know the status of a small emergency access road that the county built after the slide.

One of the lawsuits is a class-action complaint that names nine individuals as well as “all others similarly situated,” Bon Air Community Club and Ledgewood Beach Water District as plaintiffs.

The other lawsuit names four plaintiffs — Teddi Kachi, Graham Lind, Janice Roberts and David Watts — whose three homes were “red tagged” or “yellow tagged” by the county following the landslide. Red-tagged homes are deemed unsafe to enter while yellow tags mean people can enter to remove personal belongings but stay overnight.

The slide awakened residents of the neighborhood at about 4 a.m. as 5.3 million cubic feet of earth, one house and a small patch of woods were displaced in a matter of moments, according to a Department of Natural Resources report. The slide destroyed part of the Driftwood Way roadway beneath it and affected many other homes. Nobody was injured.

Roberts’ home, which subsequently was red-tagged, was later vandalized, looted and then destroyed by arson, the lawsuit states.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Willie said. “For most people, their primary asset they have in their lives is their homes. To come back from something like this is very difficult.”

Homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover landslides unless a homeowner purchases “a rider,” which can be very expensive or impossible to get, she said.

The lawsuits outline the geotechnical analysis and work that the county has done in the Ledgewood Beach area going back as far as 1977.

The lawsuits state that the county was aware of the instability of the landmass above Driftwood Way in 1991 and was warned by geologist Gerald Thorsen against the “potentially destabilizing effect of adding fill to the road.” Golder Associates also concluded in 1997 that the county’s continual placement of fill on the road “decreased the stability of the area,” the lawsuit states.

Nevertheless, the lawsuits claim the county “worsened the situation on Driftwood Way by adding and compacting fill on the roadway.”

Driftwood Way was hit by significant landslides in 1996 and 2006; both times the county rebuilt the road.

The lawsuits allege that the county recognized that groundwater was likely the cause of ground movement in the area but did not take steps to mitigate the problem.

The lawsuits claim that the county was aware in 2012 and 2013 that a cross-culvert was blocked and wasn’t conveying water underneath Driftwood Way, but did nothing to fix it.

“These things are not that mysterious,” Willie said. “Common sense and preventative measures may have prevented this.”

In addition, the lawsuits claim that the county breached its duties by refusing to accept ownership or maintenance responsibility for an access road built after the landslide to link the south end of Driftwood Way to Fircrest Avenue. The road doesn’t allow access to all of the residents’ requirements, including complete emergency services, the lawsuits state.

A 2013 report that GeoEngineers, Inc. compiled for the county, however, didn’t identify the blocked culvert or fill as contributing factors in the landslide.

The report pointed to high seasonal and cumulative groundwater; built-up groundwater and hydrostatic pressure from previous slide material impeding seepage; pre-existing slide planes; and erosion at the toe of the slide area as likely triggers.

Also, the Department of Natural Resources’ “quick report” by four geologists described the landslide as part of a much larger, 1.5-mile “landslide complex” that may date back as much as 11,000 years and consists of poorly consolidated materials.

Since the landslide was “deep seated,” one of the state DNR geologists said it was debatable whether groundwater or surface run-off was even a factor.