Hillside homes: On the edge

Published May 13, 2007 8:10 am
As lands near homes shift, so does the debate about developers' rights vs. the duty of cities to protect residents
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Correction: From 1999 to 2004, Draper approved a total of about 1,300 units at SunCrest. The next two years, the city approved an average of 65 units per year at the development. A May 13 story gave incorrect numbers and time frames.

A mass of moving mud forces families from new town houses in Cedar Hills. Slipping soils ruin luxury homes in Mountain Green. And shifting sediments wreck decades-old dwellings in Layton, Provo and North Salt Lake.


They threaten many a hillside in many a community up and down the Wasatch Front and throughout Utah. They usually injure no one - slides here typically move slowly - but they generally rack up a million dollars in damage a year.

That relatively low tab may mean only that Utah has been lucky so far. After all, hundreds, even thousands of homes sit in imperiled areas. And as the climate grows hotter (with wilder swings in precipitation) and houses creep farther and farther up hillsides, bigger disasters may loom.

"We have some of the most challenging terrain in North America," says Francis Ashland, a Utah Geological Survey (UGS) geologist, who can tick off a list of the state's weak soils. "The next disaster could be a $100 million one."

While the land is slowly moving, so too is the regulatory climate. Cities and counties - particularly those where landslides have traumatized residents - are adopting tougher hillside and sensitive-lands ordinances. Their planners are requiring more geotechnical work before building can begin. And a governor's working group is poised to recommend ways to keep people from building in hazardous areas without addressing those hazards.

This new awareness comes too late for thousands of residents. How did their homes end up in jeopardy, and why are more headed for dangerous turf?

The reasons are many: Too often, home buyers demand hillside views, fail to research the risks and put too much trust in government. Developers scrimp on geologic or geotechnical expertise. Experts use outdated standards and produce quick reports. Cities and counties fail to assess future threats, readily defer to developers' consultants and rarely tell a builder no.

"Overall, in Utah, we have in place what needs to be in place in dealing with geologic hazards," says Gary Christenson, director of the UGS' geologic-hazards division and chairman of the governor's working group. "Not everybody is enforcing it or adopting it."

The civic shift toward stricter rules and better enforcement is setting off a new debate about the right of builders to develop their property and the obligation of public officials to protect the people.

Ground zero in the conflict can be found in Draper.

A mountain of headaches

Evidence is mounting that Traverse Ridge - home to hundreds (someday, possibly, thousands) of houses with stunning views of Lone Peak, Mount Timpanogos and the Salt Lake and Utah valleys - is strewn with landslides, many of them stable but more than a dozen documented as moving.

Frustrated developers of Suncrest, a mushrooming community within a community perched on the ridge above the rest of Draper, have pumped more than $4 million into geologic and geotechnical research only to see their experts second-guessed by the city and its consultants.

"The mountain may be the most studied mountain in the state of Utah and maybe beyond," developer Ed Grampp says. "We do have some landslide areas up there. We have been open as a company to finding out the truth of that."

But the majority of the land where Suncrest hopes to build can be developed safely, he argues. His experts agree.

Draper isn't so sure. The city's experts want more research.

"It's not just the health and safety of future residents that live on these slides," says David Dobbins, Draper's community-development director. "If a slide moves, it can affect someone downhill. . . . Our [City] Council is not willing to put that on the back of current residents."

From 1999 to 2004, Draper approved a total of about 1,300 units at SunCrest. The next two years, the city approved an average of 65 units per year at the development.

Grampp, vice president of Terrabrook, the national planned-community developer of the 3,800-acre project, says the delays make it impossible to meet the demand from builders. Some, he adds, already have walked away.

Grampp casts the impasse as a bad marriage, with Suncrest the bruised and beseeching groom and Draper the standoffish and unpredictable bride.

"When you talk about the ebbs and flows of our marriage, we're at a low point," he says. "We're at a very low point."

Changing the rules

In the beginning of this now-rocky relationship, Grampp explains, the developers were counting on a steady supply of lot approvals.

"That's how we pay our bills," he says. "That's how we pay for the benefits for the city."

Those benefits include plans to deed about 1,900 acres of open space and 38 miles to trails to Draper.

But requirements from the planning staff, Grampp says, seem to change and when Suncrest is accused of not supplying what the city wants, there's truth in the charge.

"The problem is we don't know what the city is requesting most of the time," he says.

Grampp is particularly annoyed Draper will not allow developers and builders in on the writing of the city's new geologic-hazard ordinance.

"I've done everything but get down on my knees and beg to be part of process," he says. "But we've not been allowed. Our fear is history will repeat itself," he adds, pointing to Draper's existing 2004 statute.

Other developers also are leery of the city's code rewrite. During a recent meeting of the governor's working group, the panel's chairman pointed to Draper's pending ordinance as a potential model.Â

"If there is any city that ought not do a model ordinance, it is Draper," counters Ryan Mecham of Sandy-based Anderson Development and an officer of the Utah Property Rights Coalition. "If there is any city that is dysfunctional, it is Draper."

Another builder, Hamlet Homes, became so discouraged earlier this year by the city questioning its geologic consultant's work that it filed a notice to sue.

Since then, the company - awaiting permission to erect 51 more town houses in Suncrest - has been negotiating with the city to resolve the dispute, says Hamlet owner Michael Brodsky.

The conflict, he adds, stems from the council reaching beyond the law.

"The city is requiring considerably more extensive investigation to prove what we have already conclusively demonstrated," Brodsky says. "Frankly, if there was a countervailing public risk, I would tell you the city was 100 percent right in stopping the development. I believe there is no public risk."

Draper's duty

Draper officials welcome Grampp's overtures for better communication but insist city leaders should assess how much risk residents assume.

"Private-property rights are fundamental American rights," Councilman Bill Colbert says. "But where do you stop someone from doing something foolish? It's when that foolishness results in liability for the community or taxpayer."

Councilman Paul Edwards says developers are unhappy now because Draper is no longer a pushover.

"They would prefer us to go back to what we had five years ago and do approvals based on that - which we can't do . . . because it's a health and safety issue," Edwards says. "We're putting people at risk. The developer is going to build their parcels and leave and, when they fail, it's going to be the city left holding the bag."

Dobbins, the city's community-development boss, notes that on the three occasions when a third-party consultant was called in to settle disputes between the developer's and city's experts, the consultant sided with the city's experts each time. Also, the city's experts suggest there are areas Suncrest should avoid building on altogether.

"When it comes to public health and safety," Dobbins says, "if there's any doubt, the council has been clear: Get rid of the doubt and be sure before you move on."

Suncrest resident Heidi Dupras says she assumed the city, the developers and consultants worked together to assure her family's safety before construction began.

"If I'd have known there were problems before we purchased," she says, "it may have affected my decisions."

But Robert Bradfield, a four-year resident, says he has had no problems and expects none.

The air is cleaner, the views stunning and the community is "nice," Bradfield says.

"We love it up there."





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