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Originally published June 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 13, 2007 at 10:36 AM

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Residents reluctant to leave the Raging River

Despite the risk of flooding, residents along the waterway east of Issaquah aren't leaping at the county's offer to purchase their properties.oods soaked the region, the Raging River lived up to its name. Its floodwaters washed out steep embankments...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

When last November's historic floods soaked the region, the Raging River lived up to its name. Its floodwaters washed out steep embankments and destroyed houses — and those images of the disaster were seen all over the country.

More than seven months later, King County is hoping to buy some of the homes along the river to prevent such images in the future. But so far, the response has been muted.

Of 90 property owners contacted about possible voluntary buyouts along the Raging River, along Interstate 90 east of Issaquah, only four have gone ahead with the applications. And even those four deals haven't closed.

It's just the latest example of a decades-long dilemma in Western Washington over the rights of homeowners who built in flood-prone areas. And county officials concede the response is rooted in a basic reality:

"This is home; we enjoy it here," said Pat Waring, a Raging River resident who received one of the buyout solicitations but didn't apply.

A long struggle

The county has debated flood-control strategy for its entire history.

The simplest way, of course, is to force people to build on high ground, but economics and other issues sometimes make that impossible. So dams have been built, and levees raised. But trying to control the water is still often fruitless.

Tom Bean, a King County engineer who has been working on the Raging River effort, recalls studies dating to the 1960s suggesting that the county could have purchased entire floodplains, avoiding the costs of repeated rebuilding, for the same money it spends on dikes, dams and levees.

But "there are legitimate questions about how much government can tell us we can't do," Bean said.

Still, there have been repeated efforts to buy flood-prone property along rivers throughout the county, including the Green and the Snoqualmie. Previous buyouts have been made along the Raging River, in 1992 and 1998.

Special problems

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The latest offers along the Raging River are part of a new county plan that acknowledges that the river has some particular problems, including being narrow. The plan recommends that $5.6 million is needed there to purchase and remove homes from flood and erosion areas.

"While King County has been recognized as a national leader in river and floodplain management, a lack of effective levee maintenance and repair funds has left King County vulnerable to significant flooding risks," the plan notes.

The program would use federal funds for the buyouts, starting with $1 million to buy all four properties.

One of the four homes now up for a buyout is the house owned by Mike and Mary Nichols on Upper Preston Road Southeast. Their plight was widely publicized as the flood raged last November and the garage of their dream home ended up in the river.

Two of the others are on 312th Avenue Southeast. A third is a very small house along the river with no listed address.

Neither the Nicholses nor any of the other owners would discuss the possible buyouts in detail. "They haven't made an offer," said Sally Jo Hursh, who has one of the houses on 312th. She said she has owned the property since 1975, and it has never flooded, but she declined to comment further.

Bean said sales offers will come after the properties are appraised. If the offers are accepted, it still could be well into next year before the sales are final.

Bean noted that the intent of the buybacks is not to cover flood losses, but rather to pay a fair market value for properties.

"Paying for all the loss is not the charge," he said.

In the end, though, whether the program will actually succeed in curtailing future flood damage remains to be seen because so few homeowners are participating. Meanwhile, for the folks along the Raging River, the uncertainties about water and economics are likely to remain.

Pat Waring, whose home didn't suffer much damage last fall, points out that she also survived the floods of 1990, when much of her yard washed away. Instead of fleeing, she and her husband rebuilt. Same with most of her neighbors, she said.

"These people decided to stay, no matter what," she said.

Still, the years pass, but the danger of flooding doesn't.

"As you get older, you think, do you want to live by the river the rest of your life?" Waring said.

"Everything is fine until November comes."

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes.com

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