Damaged lands repurposed for recreation and conservation


Land rezoned after the earthquake has revitalized local agricultural economies.

An earthquake ten years ago shook policymakers into rethinking land use in King County. Today, thousands of acres formerly zoned for residential and industrial purposes have been converted to green space. The purpose of the multijurisdictional rezoning process was to depopulate areas highly prone to hazards such as liquefaction, landslides and flooding. Areas if repeated flooding, liquefaction areas and land on or near an unstable slope were acquired by King County or municipal jurisdictions. These lands were combined through a mixture of eminent domain and voluntary relocation and converted into several different types of greenspace including public parks, conservation areas and farmland.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, policymakers recognized an opportunity to reduce long-term risk by building back better. Prior to the earthquake, local jurisdictions could restrict development in some identified hazardous areas. But they had little political means of addressing the issue of existing development in critical areas. It took the magnitude 7.2 Seattle Fault earthquake to create support for land use policies to address the existing risk. In some cases, the policy meant not building back at all. The County estimated that the rezones potentially saved billions of dollars in future disaster losses.

Martha Flora, the local official who spearheaded the rezoning project, met resistance when she proposed the idea of hazard area land-use conversion. “Some thought this project was a career-ender. But the few of us on board with the project from the get-go knew this was the only surefire way to ensure that this kind of disaster would never happen to us, to King County, ever again. That made it worth it to us.”

In the long term, the presence of green spaces does not only reduce risk but is also an environmental investment. In addition to reducing immediate risk to life and property, the policy’s aim was to improve air and water quality. Green spaces mean more trees and vegetation and fewer sources of pollution that threaten the quality of natural resources. They also perform the ecosystem service of carbon sequestration.

However, not all were on board with the rezones.

Flora’s policy was met with fierce opposition from community leaders when discussed in public meetings. Many in the Duwamish Valley in Seattle, which was rezoned due to its susceptibility to liquefaction, felt that the policy unfairly targeted lower-income families. Georgetown and South Park, the two neighborhoods that formerly occupied most of the Duwamish Valley, were home to a disproportionate number of minority and low-income residents before the conversion.

“I lived in South Park all my life,” said George Ellis, a former cement plant worker. “After the earthquake, we had it bad enough. Then they told us we had to move…I worked my whole life for what I had. The check I got for it? That wasn’t worth what I had.” Ellis and his family now live in Marysville, 40 minutes north of Seattle. They were unable to afford the skyrocketing price of rent in the aftermath of the earthquake. “We’re strong people, we were going to rebuild.”

south park

The South Park neighborhood, pictured in 2014, is now a conservation area. 

Industries in the Duwamish were similarly recalcitrant to the policy, fearful of relocating to an area with higher property taxes. At one point, lawsuits were threatened against the City of Seattle. “I personally visited CEOs, I assured them we would take care of their companies,” said Flora, “There would be compensation, there would be great sites for relocation. I told them this. In the end, not everyone was on board, but we were able to move forward with enough support from the industrial sector.”

Others in the Duwamish Valley welcomed the idea of rezoning. To members of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot tribes, the Duwamish area is a place of cultural and historical significance. The tribes exercise fishing rights on the Duwamish River, allowed under federal treaty. Prior to the earthquake, industrial pollution complicated resource use. The conversion of the area to green space has expanded tribal access to the area and has also helped facilitate the Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund cleanup effort.

Rezones due to flood and landslide risk were widespread in rural and urban areas. Prior to the earthquake, 7.5 percent of King County was located in a 100-year floodplain. However, the policy mandated that only a fraction of that area be rezoned.

“Not all floodplain areas were considered risky enough for rezoning. We prioritized areas with a lot of repetitive loss properties as defined by the National Flood Insurance Program, as well as areas that have historically been susceptible to major flooding events that resulted in significant property damage or loss of life,” said Flora.

Rezoning landslide-prone areas was a more difficult process. Though the earthquake had clearly demonstrated where the most vulnerable slopes lay, experts had to be cautious not to discount slopes that had been weakened but had not collapsed. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) identified remaining landslide threats and compiled a new map of landslide risk.

Residential property owners in the condemned hazard areas, also known as “red zones,” were given the opportunity to voluntarily sell their properties for the value of their homes before the earthquake under a buy-out plan funded partially by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA paid 75 percent of voluntary buyouts, leaving the local jurisdiction with only 25 percent of the cost. Those who voluntarily relocated were offered tax breaks as an additional carrot for participation.

This buyout strategy was exhibited in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. A study was conducted that looks at the return on investment on lands that have been acquired and repurposed as green zones without development. The study states that, “The analysis of Shepherdsville’s buyout project shows an average return on investment to be 245 percent. This means that an estimated savings of $2.45 in property damages for each dollar invested has been realized since the project’s implementation. These returns indicate that this project has been cost effective over the period of record.” The same benefits are expected in King County.

If homeowners refused, the County acquired the property through eminent domain, a strategy that was only able to be utilized after a lengthy legal battle around the applicability of the Takings Clause. Homeowners were still paid the market value for their properties as stipulated by just compensation. In these cases, however, the jurisdiction was forced to pay the owner out-of-pocket. Given the large number of residents who refused the voluntary buy-out, this put an enormous financial burden on jurisdictions. As a result, many jurisdictions relied on additional state funding for project support.

All relocated residents, regardless of whether property had been sold voluntarily or had been acquired, were connected with the interim Redevelopment and Citizen Support Agency (RICSA). The Agency’s purpose was to offer information and referrals to transitional residents in red zones. They provided basic information about the purchase process, provided interim housing for families, provided information on permanent housing, and offered mental health services.

In cases where property owners owned undeveloped land they were given the opportunity to participate in the Public Benefit Rating System (PBRS), a setup in which the landowner agrees to maintain the undeveloped property for resource conservation and in return receives a tax break from the government. This arrangement was mutually beneficial for the property owner and for the government. The property owner maintains ownership and saves on taxes in the long-run, and precludes the financial burden of purchase for the government.

“What we did was costly, that’s for sure,” reflects Flora. “This was a billion dollar project. And ultimately, we understood that by setting aside all of this land for green space, we eliminated a source of economic growth. But with smart planning, we can make up for that through other means. We’re still building, we’re just building back better.”

A city in Ontario has practiced this change of land use for several years. They have gone through many changes in land use. They intend to use formerly industrial areas as recreational spaces. Their city is on the leading edge of these changes in land use through their use of planning and policy implementation. Their diligence allows them to keep their areas in good use as well as reducing their harm to the environment. An article in a landscaping magazine mentions how the changes in land use are affecting citizens and the city’s economy. “We’re now considering one spot as a candidate site for our PanAmerican Games sports facilities. We’ve seen a lot of conversion of abandoned railway lines to an extensive network of trails, which is making us one of the leaders in the province if not in Canada. We’ve got a lot of success stories. It’s exciting to see a lot of changes happening and a lot more planned.”

Flora speaks to the revenue and job creation that come with development. By rezoning much of the County for non-development, a large source of tax revenue has been lost for jurisdictions. To combat this, jurisdictions have begun aggressive development campaigns in designated growth areas. Investment in much of the County was initially slow, as many developers felt threatened by what they saw as an overreaching government authority.

John Browe, a real estate developer who has developed several subdivisions that were red-zoned, had doubts about continuing his business in the region. “The restrictions they put on development are ludicrous. Now believe me, developers wanted to do business. With so much destroyed, there were a lot of projects on the table. In the long term though, with reconstruction almost finished now and really nowhere left to build, I’m headed east with my company.”

Jurisdictions have attempted to fill the economic void of unrestrained development with other investments. Seattle has managed to keep its tech giants in the city and is still home to a number of Fortune 500 companies. More rural jurisdictions have found ways to profit off of the now abundant amount of green space in their possession. Many, for example, have leased green spaces that have passed environmental review to local farmers. The tenant, however, may not reside on these properties.

Today, there are over 500 new green spaces throughout the County. Some function as public parks, others as conservation areas and restored wetlands, and others as active farmland. The new parks and trails have been advertised in new social campaigns aimed at boosting mental and physical health. During the summers, many day camps run out of these areas. “The sheer number of these parks has fostered a new opportunity for kids and adults alike to engage with nature,” says Seattle Parks and Recreation Director Thomas Smith, “And the best part? It’s free.”

The increased amount of farmland available to both small- and large-scale farmers has increased the region’s food independence, and “Eat Local” can be seen across any given highway billboard. “We have an abundance of fresh, locally given produce here in King County,” says farmer Jack Wright. “And not just in the rural areas. In the cities now, too. It’s cheaper for folks that way. And it’s fresh. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this transition.”