North Salt Lake evacuees angry city allowed development in slide area
North Salt Lake • As North Salt Lake recovers from a landslide that destroyed a home and sparked accusations of reckless development, the most pressing questions are still without answers: No plan exists to stabilize the slope looming over the Eagleridge neighborhood, and geologists worry the threat isn't over.
"Our problem is, we don't know what to do, and we don't want to make a terrible situation worse," North Salt Lake Mayor Len Arave said to angry residents at a City Council meeting about 12 hours after a family fled their house just before 400 to 500 feet of rock and debris shoved it off its foundation.
Steven Peterson, who lives on Parkway Drive, said he awoke about 6 a.m. to the sound of rocks crashing outside. He looked across the street as earth heaved around the home of his neighbors, the Utrillas. The family, who had moved to Utah from Peru and poured their life savings into their house, had been watching cracks form in the ground while city officials and work crews took measurements and moved soil to try to pre-empt an erosion crisis, Peterson said. The day before, Peterson had met with city officials on the Utrillas' behalf; a staffer said they would move the family of 10 to a hotel if there was "any risk" of danger, Peterson said. On Monday night, he stayed with them until 11 p.m. as they debated moving.
Instead, as soil heaved around their house the next morning, the family, including young children, "came streaming out of the house, crying ... and distraught," Peterson said.
"We proceeded to watch their house be crushed," Peterson said.
Nearly 30 households were forced to leave their homes for the day, and five remained under evacuation orders Tuesday night.
Arave declared a state of emergency, which should trigger help from Davis County in removing soil and other materials. Engineers placed berms on the slope to control water and drained a pool to relieve pressure on the ground below.
But Arave warned that further action will not be immediate.
"It'll be a couple of days before we can even get in and start testing soils," he said and depending on further sliding, testing may take even longer. Geologists warned city officials that the slope remained precarious. The Utrillas' house itself is holding back large amounts of debris, and rains could further burden the slope.
"I just want everyone to understand we may not have seen the last of the soil movement up there," said City Manager Barry Edwards.
After testing, results may take a week, Arave said. Only then can engineers begin looking at ways to stabilize the slope for the long term.
Some residents on Tuesday said rehabilitating the slope now is too little too late.
"This is not an accident. This is not an act of God. This is because of decisions made by developers and North Salt Lake," Peterson said. "You need to reconsider when you issue building permits."
Arave said the city had relied on expert reports approving the safety of the slope.
"The consultant hired by the developer is going to do whatever the developer wants," Peterson countered.
Added his wife, Judy Peterson: "This is greed."
Resident John Sather said the council should have known the mountain, previously occupied by a quarry, was not suitable for building when it installed horizontal drains to move water out of the slope years ago.
"You say you didn't know [about the risk], but you did," Sather said. "It's not rocket science."
Homeowners on the hillside near Eagleridge Drive, about a half-mile away from Tuesday's landslide, had been complaining to the city about landslides since at least Sept. 7, 2010, according to the minutes of a North Salt Lake City Council meeting.
At that meeting, City Attorney Dave Church said the city is "doing its best to handle the situation." The city had not been sued, and Church was trying to keep the city on the side of the downhill neighbors, according to the minutes.
Arave acknowledged knowing about a house on Parkway Drive that began to slide downhill about a year ago.
"Although signs have been showing up for one year, the majority of the situation has been ... within a couple of weeks," Arave said. "Because we didn't start soon enough, this tragedy occurred. I wish we would have done it differently. I wish we'd have gotten an earlier start."
City Engineer Paul Ottoson said after cracking was found in the area last fall, soil was removed to make the grade of the hillside less steep. Cracking occurred again earlier in the summer, he said, and the developer removed more materials at the top of the hill.
Julie Chapman, the Eagleridge Tennis and Swim Club's office manager and a neighborhood resident, said movement in the ground had intensified recently.
"You could kind of hear it for the last few days, kind of a low moan," she said. "We've been watching it for days and days."
Then, at 6:15 a.m. Tuesday, "it just all started coming down," Chapman said. She described the hillside as "literally bursting at the seams" as it sent rocks and soil sliding down to the club and residences below. She heard the rocks hitting the house that eventually crumbled.
"It would come in sections," Chapman said of the materials rolling into the neighborhood. "Then it would slow down and just a few rocks would come down. It was scary. It was sad to watch."
Randy Waddoups, who is in charge of maintenance for the club, said the land had been moving since April. He was awake Monday until about 3 a.m. Tuesday as he tried to figure out how to protect the club.
"I knew this was coming down," Waddoups said. "I tried everything I could yesterday."
Club owner Brad Ferreira estimated the property already has racked up a minimum of $600,000 in damage, and he scrambled to rearrange a fundraiser tennis tournament that was taking place this week. The club was taking on mud that had covered a storage shed and was approaching a swimming pool.
National Weather Service meteorologist Randy Graham said recent storms have soaked the North Salt Lake area, which has received 150 to 200 percent of precipitation normal for the region including 0.80 inches of rain in the 24 hours preceding the slide.
"Those thunderstorms that rolled through that area [Monday night] really brought down a lot of water, and it came down fast," Graham said.
"We're just shocked," Ferreira said. "We didn't think it would happen this quickly."
As he headed to work about 6 a.m., Ferreira who had been meeting with city officials and developers for the past week and a half started receiving phone calls about the land shifting in the vicinity of 739 S. Parkway Drive. By 6:30 a.m., "half the hillside was down," he said.
Natural gas has been stopped to 24 homes in the area and likely will remain off for three to seven days. Crews cannot reach the gas shut off valve in the Utrillas' destroyed home, so they had to cut gas to all the homes, city officials said.
Crews can't dig to the valve, "because if you dig, you could set off a chain of events that could be worse," Edwards said.
Sky Properties, which developed the site, has agreed to install inclinometers and test the soil when conditions are more stable.
"They have not admitted liability and I don't know I'd expect them to but they have agreed to help solve the problems," Arave said.
Peterson said he felt "sick" for his neighbors, who aren't insured for floods or landslides. One of the homeowners told him, "We came to America to be safe."
Sky Properties has moved the Utrillas into one of its for-sale houses. Peterson said they, and the city, owe the family more.
"They should not be left out in the cold ... while everyone says, 'Well, gee, it wasn't my problem,'" he said. "You need to work out a way to restore what this family has lost."
Tournament moved to new location
This week's Ardene Bullard OF LOVE Tournament and Fund Raiser has been moved because of damage from a landslide to its original location, the Eagleridge Tennis and Swim Club in North Salt Lake.
All matches scheduled at the club now will be held at the University of Utah Eccles Tennis Center at 550 Guardsman Way (1580 East) in Salt Lake City. The center also will host Saturday's professional exhibition match between Robby Ginepri and Rajeev Ram.
Matches at Bountiful Ridge and Woods Cross High School will be played as scheduled, subject to weather.