Cordova bans construction in high-risk avalanch zones

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2000

CORDOVA - This coastal community has adopted a tough new ban on building in snowslide zones following a devastating avalanche in January that wrecked five homes and two warehouses and killed a 63-year-old woman.

The new law blocks construction in the highest-risk area of Cordova and clears the way for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state to buy land there and move the surviving homes to safer ground.

That cost is anticipated to run around a half-million dollars.

``It's a real landmark ordinance,'' said Jill Fredston of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center. Doug Fesler of the safety center performed the Cordova slide study upon which the ordinance is based.

City officials in Valdez are considering adopting a similar measure.

``Folks in both communities and their elected leaders took on a pretty gutsy decision,'' said Bruce Knipe, a deputy coordinator in FEMA's regional mitigation office in the Seattle suburb of Bothell, Wash.

Efforts to restrict building in high-risk avalanche areas around Anchorage and Juneau have been unsuccessful in recent years.

Cordova's ordinance, adopted unanimously by the city council on April 19, creates two categories of avalanche zones.

The highest-risk area, or red zone, is a 1,100-foot-wide strip at the base of the runout zone in last winter's slide. The ordinance says major avalanches can be expected in the red zone at least every 30 years.

The law allows no new permanent structures to be built there. Owners of red-zone homes can opt to sell their property to the government and have their homes, if they're still standing, moved to a new neighborhood.

Property owners who don't want to sell or move don't have to, but the ordinance restricts what they can do with their property.

A FEMA grant would provide 75 percent of the money to buy out the red-zone property owners. The state would add the other 25 percent.

The second category, or blue zone, is defined as a moderate-risk area where lesser avalanches can be expected at intervals ranging from 30 to 300 years. The buyout and relocation offer does not extend to people living in the blue zone.

The ordinance bans new commercial buildings, apartments and other high-density structures in the blue zone and allows only single-family homes to be built there in the future.

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