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(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) This home at 739 Parkway Drive in North Salt Lake was destroyed by a landslide on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014.
The buck for safe hillside development stops with Utah cities
Landslides » It can be hard — if not impossible — for city officials to say “no” when experts deem an area safe for building.
First Published Aug 10 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 11 2014 08:27 am

When would-be homeowners see a house on a hill — or at the bottom of a hillside — they assume it’s safe; certain that regulators have made sure there is no hazard.

But that isn’t always the case. And when things go wrong, residents wonder how it was allowed to happen — particularly when a landslide, like the one last week at Eaglepointe Estates in North Salt Lake, is at the site of a former gravel quarry resting upon claylike soils.

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In Utah, state law puts the onus for safe development squarely on the shoulders of local government. In some cases, like North Salt Lake today and Draper 15 years ago, smaller cities that are growing rapidly face challenges they may not have fully envisioned.

"The smaller the community, the smaller the resources for planning," said Jim Schwab of the Chicago-based Hazards Planning Research Center. "Those places are more dependent on the state for guidance."

While the Utah Geological Survey (UGS) does offer direction to cities on such matters — including how to craft a hillside-building ordinance — the agency does not have the resources to study specific proposed developments, said UGS deputy director Kimm Harty.

In an effort to aid cities, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman commissioned Utah experts to issue a 2007 report, called "Recommendations of the Governor’s Geological Hazards Working Group." It urged municipalities to strengthen practices beyond simply accepting a report from a consultant hired by a developer. The stated goal: "to encourage local governments to understand their exposure to geologic hazards, evaluate their risk, and develop a plan to reduce their risk where necessary."

It’s the law » When developers come knocking, it means an increase in property tax base for a city and, most likely, sales tax revenues down the line, because retailers follow rooftops.

And when builders produce geotechnical reports declaring a development safe, the burden under Utah law is on the city to show why those landowners can’t exercise their property rights.

"If someone comes with an application for development that complies with the zoning in place and a geotechnical report that shows the soil to be safe, the city has to approve it," explained Brent Bateman, lead attorney for Utah’s Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman. "If the city doesn’t say yes and it is safe, a ‘taking’ may have occurred."

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Such an instance of "taking," or depriving owners of property rights, could leave the municipality liable for financial damages.

But there is an exception, Bateman noted: "A compelling countervailing public interest" — that is, if further analysis deems the proposed development unsafe.

Sky Properties provided North Salt Lake with an in-depth geotechnical report on Eaglepointe Estates from consultants the development firm hired. The 2003 document by California-based Applied Geotechnical Engineering Consultants Inc., determined, among other findings, that the Eaglepointe hillside "is suitable for the proposed residential development."

Red flag » The report added a caveat: "Based on [geologic hazard] maps, a more detailed study on portions of the proposed development is suggested for surface fault rupture, landslide and debris flow."

That, said UGS’ Harty, is a "red flag."

"If the report says you can build there but there are things you should study further, that’s a warning to me," she said. "The city and developer should look at it further."

Sky Properties, in fact, commissioned a follow-up analysis on the hillside that slid Tuesday. A 2013 report from Salt Lake City-based GSH Geotechnical Inc. found the hill to be "globally stable."

North Salt Lake officials say they followed the law and recommended protocols, including independent reviews of the geotechnical reports supplied by the developer.

"I don’t know how we could have predicted or prevented something like this," said City Councilman Conrad Jacobson. "We’re grasping at straws as to what more we could do and how we face the future."

Predicting exactly when and how a landslide will occur is practically impossible, said Jeff Moore, University of Utah professor of geology and geophysics. But he noted that some lands at Eaglepointe were "continuously disturbed" in the years it served as a gravel quarry, adding to potential instability.

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