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Juneau eyes slide options

Fatal avalanche in Cordova triggers concern in capital city

Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Juneau has no law requiring owners and prospective buyers of properties in avalanche areas to be notified that those areas are dangerous. But one expert wants the city to ask for federal funds to buy homes in danger zones.

The city of Cordova has adopted such an ordinance following a major avalanche that killed a resident and cut a swath through homes and businesses there in January. The Cordova measure also restricts construction in avalanche zones.

A Juneau ordinance adopted in 1987 does restrict construction in a severe avalanche hazard zone to a single-family building that must be constructed to withstand avalanche impact loads, said Department of Community Development Director Cheryl Easterwood.

But information on a property's hazard status is usually acquired at the request of prospective home buyers.

``We've had quite a few prospective homeowners come in to look at our maps,'' Easterwood said. ``And we give them the information if they do ask.''

Past efforts by the city to mandate hazard notification have met considerable resistance from homeowners and would-be buyers. ``That's what we heard in 1992,'' Easterwood said. ``A lot of people worried that (notification) would negatively impact property values and financing. They were frustrated that there wasn't a solution.''

That solution, according to Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center Director Bill Glude, would be simply to buy up properties in the affected areas.

Glude estimated some 58 homes in Juneau are, with respect to slides, in harm's way.

``In the long term, it's very important not to force people out of their homes,'' he said. ``We have so much tied up in our homes that notification will be met with resistance'' until buyouts are an option.

Cordovans are looking to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and to the state as sources of funding for buyouts of hazardously situated properties in their city.

``I'm working to find out whether the FEMA program could work in Juneau,'' Glude said.

Easterwood is also making inquiries of FEMA, she said.

Early efforts to get hazard notification to owners and buyers and to record a property's hazard status didn't go well.

``We ran into a tremendous outcry, not only from people who lived there, but from people who wanted to buy, as well as the lending institutions,'' said Deputy Mayor John MacKinnon.

The assembly member was on the city's Planning Commission in the late 1980s when an effort was made and then, because of the reaction, dropped by the assembly.

As for the likelihood of assembly action today, ``I've heard people say they're happy to live there,'' MacKinnon said. ``I liken it to choosing to drink or smoke, or engaging in dangerous activity. It's a matter of choice.''

There has been no development in Juneau's severe avalanche areas since the code was adopted in 1987, Easterwood said.



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