Build the walls! (And we’ll pay for it): 44M more for new homes, avalanche barriers in government’s revised proposed budget

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Lawmakers are proposing spending an additional 48 million kroner in next year’s national budget for housing and avalanche protection to help Longyearbyen cope with its sudden housing crisis after an avalanche in February – the second in 14 months that destroyed structures – shook up the faith of local residents and leaders in the safety of main homes near mountainsides.

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Homes closest to Sukkurtoppen, where two avalanches have destroyed residences since December of 2015, are the top priority in a budget proposal that would allocate funds for snow barriers. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

A total of 20 million kroner is proposed for avalanche protection, with the remaining 28 million for research and engineering of new homes, according to Nordlys. While both amounts are well short of what recent reports state is necessary for both categories, even in the short-term, it will allow officials to meet a goal of beginning work before next winter arrives.

“I am very excited that the government is making this a priority,” said Kent Gudmundsen, a Conservative Party member of Parliament, in an interview with Nordlys. “We clearly documented when I was in Svalbard in March, and had meetings with the local government and the business community up there, which clarified the need for new buildings and avalanche protection.”

“It is incredibly important when we focus on the northern area policy that we provide for good housing for people who want to work in Svalbard. This one of the most important measures when it comes to growth and development in that society.”

The current shortage is largely due to 60 mountainside residences that were evacuated indefinitely after an avalanche destroyed two apartment buildings Feb. 21. Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, enforcing the evacuation under Norway’s Police Act, stated the homes will remain empty at least until the snow is gone – and future occupation during winter is unlikely unless protective barriers are built.

The avalanche struck a few hours after experts told Askholt a just-ending storm didn’t leave enough snow to trigger an avalanche that could reach structures. The analysis was based on a warning system established after an avalanche on Dec. 19, 2015, destroyed 11 homes and killed two people.

“With a sword’s stroke the confidence of the warning system that was established after the avalanche in 2015 has disappeared,” the government stated in an assessment of the incident released last month.

Some residents, developers and city officials have expressed a reluctance to reoccupy homes in areas considered most at-risk, which primarily consist of the residences closest to Lia beneath Sukkertoppen – where the two avalanches occurred – and in Nybyen. The flat vacant parcels of Elvesletta and the Sjøområdet industrial area are considered priority areas for new housing.

The funds for avalanche protection are being allocated to the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE), with snow screens and other support structures in Lia the main priority, according to lawmakers. The 28 million for housing is being allocated to Statsbygg for basic research and engineering of new homes, with the goal of having new homes completed by 2018.

But far more money will be necessary to meet the projected demand.

It will cost between 79 million and 180 million kroner to build avalanche barriers for all at-risk areas, according to an NVE report issued in January. Also, the Longyearbyen Community Council sent a letter to the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security this spring stating 55 million kroner is needed to build 20 homes as quickly as possible just to house city and other employees at official agencies.

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