Cities fighting a losing battle against landslides

Published May 14, 2007 2:28 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

There's nothing like an ambush to wake up the gatekeepers.

Plagued by landslides that continue to damage homes from the 1970s and '80s, Layton and Provo have learned to be skeptical - and demanding - when developers ask to build on hills and bluffs.

Layton, for instance, keeps beefing up its sensitive-lands ordinance, says Scott Carter, the Davis County city's community-and-economic-development director.

In April, the City Council refused a rezoning for a 70-acre housing subdivision that would go on a hillside across the creek from where the creeping Heather Drive landslide destroyed three homes and forced three others to be relocated in 2001.

More research into the geology (the land and its characteristics) and geotechnical engineering (how it can be made safe for building) is needed, the council ruled.

The 2001 tragedy struck three years after a slide swallowed a home overlooking another fork of Kays Creek on Sunset Drive. That slide also claimed a home last year, forcing out family members who had spent good money to bolster their home against such slippage.

"The financial loss is one thing. The emotional toll is another," says Carter, a member of a governor's working group on geologic hazards. "It's awful."

Layton had to tiptoe the fine line that confronts all slide-scarred cities: It wanted to help traumatized residents, but it couldn't just dole out cash to them, and it didn't want any assistance to be construed as accepting blame.

So city staffers met with banks and credit unions to try to get mortgages erased or reduced. They worked with movers to relocate homes that could be saved. They put homeowners in touch with geotechnical consultants. And so that no one else would unwittingly inherit landslide-prone lots, Layton added a red flag to each of the titles recorded with Davis County.

Through his experiences in Layton, Carter noticed this: "I've never had the developer come back and stand with us 16 hours a day as we try to help people."

Francis Ashland, a state geologist, says if one wonders which Utah communities are becoming most sophisticated in assessing the risks of building on landslides, "It's the communities that were hammered."

Like Provo, where city engineers now forbid any building along a stretch of Mile High Drive. Recent movement of a decades-old slide there has left four homes vacant and forced two more to be torn down.

Utah Geological Survey geologists say the Sherwood Hills landslide, named for the upscale northeast Provo neighborhood where it resides, shifts continuously, even in dry years.

"You see a lot of 'For Sale' signs up there," City Engineer Nick Jones says. "We've rebuilt Mile High Drive twice."

Since 1987, the city has required all new building permits in the neighborhood to have a warning of potential geologic hazards on the deed. In 1999, Provo officials spent $300,000 to define the precise slide area and then made the information public.

Jones says no new building is allowed in the slide zone unless the developer can prove no movement has happened on that particular lot. Even then, builders must produce a design that can guard against ground movement.

"The owner has to sign and acknowledge he has some problems," Jones says. "We try to protect people from themselves."

Given those hurdles, there has been no new building in the slide zone since 1999.

Layton's new get-tough approach requires the UGS to sign off on geologic and geotechnical work by a developer's consultants. The UGS provides that service free to cities and counties.

If a developer's experts and the UGS disagree, then Layton hires a third expert - at the developer's expense.

In the end, Carter sees Layton's role as forcing the developer to decide whether "doing it right" is worth the millions it may cost.

But even with Layton's clampdown, there are no guarantees that all future building will be slide-free.

"Science will take you only so far," Carter says.

Jay Eggett can say amen to that.

He, his wife, Donna Chipman, and their three children are preparing to move their Sunset Drive home, which they had to abandon last spring, to a new lot.

Eggett, a landscape architect who designs parks for Layton, says the family bought the home after the 1998 slide destroyed the house next door and left marks as it arced across six other back lawns.

The price was right and they used the savings to do everything the geotechnical experts suggested. They put an interceptor drain across the front yard, 20 feet below ground, to fend off water. They anchored the foundation with helical piers and erected a row of 30-inch-diameter piers across the top of the hillside 15 feet from the house to stabilize the land.

Upon returning from a trip to Missouri one April night last year, Eggett learned that it was all for naught.

"I came out to feed the dog," he says, "and almost fell off [the deck]."

The land fell three feet in three days, splitting the side yard and leaving a yawning gap under a corner of the house.

The lesson learned, Eggett says, is this:

"Don't trust the geotechnical reports."


House hunting?

If you're shopping for a lot or a home on or at the base of a hill or mountain, be sure to:

* Do some double-checking. Don't assume it's safe just because the city or county approved it.

* Go to the Utah Geological Survey Web site, http://www.geology.utah.gov, for information.

* Go to the city or county planning office and ask to see geologic-hazard maps as well as all geologic and geotechnical reports for the subdivision. Ask to see the developer's and any independent reports.

* Seek proof that expert recommendations were followed.

* Possibly hire an engineering geologist or geotechnical engineer to evaluate the site or reports.

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