A Utah geologist warned of a Draper home collapse in 2010. Robert Gehrke explains how the Legislature let it happen.

The Draper mayor says residents expect some assurances of safety, but “We’re not protecting them because we don’t have the power to do it.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The scene on Monday, April 24, 2023, where two homes located at 2463 and 2477 E Springtime Road collapsed into the adjacent canyon on Saturday.

When Kathleen Nicoll saw a video of a Draper home sliding off the hillside and into a ravine, she said she cried.

“I was extremely saddened,” she told me Wednesday, “because I could have foreseen this.”

In fact, she had.

That’s because, as a geography professor at the University of Utah, Nicoll studied the Traverse Mountain area in 2010, and then wrote a paper warning that it was at extremely high risk for just this sort of slide.

And when Nicoll moved to the state in 2005 and was looking to buy a home, she saw right away that the area looked unsafe. “Immediately, I said there is no way I will choose to live here,” she said.

The Utah Geological Survey has mapped numerous historic slides on the steep slopes. Every year, Nicoll takes her students up to the area to show them how the weak bedrock and crumbling earth make it a risky place to build.

But every year she goes back more homes are popping up, putting even more stress on the slopes. She notices more and more homes are suffering structural damage — buckling roads, cracking foundations, structures moving downslope — because of where they’re built.

“Just because a house is built somewhere doesn’t mean it’s a safe place to build,” she said. Until about two decades ago, “you couldn’t build on a landslide deposit, and that [area] was mapped as a landslide deposit.”

Still, these projects keep getting built, in large part because the Legislature — which is totally dominated by developers and real estate interests — and the courts have made it almost impossible for cities to say no, or to even impose safety conditions on a developer.

On a previous project Draper City tried to say no to a developer and ended up getting sued, Mayor Troy Walker told me Wednesday. The court told the city that it either had to let the developer build or it had to buy the property.

When the developer who built the home that slid into the ravine last week came to Draper with the project, the city could have resisted and lost in court again, or it could have let it go forward.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

And at that point, why are we even bothering with requiring cities to “approve” a project at all? It’s meaningless and, worse, offers residents a false sense of security.

Moreover, there is nothing in Utah law that requires the seller of a home to disclose potential hazards, whether the home is built in a floodplain or on a sloughing mountainside. It’s buyer beware.

“This is a discussion we need to have,” Walker said. “The expectation of the public is that the government is protecting them with this stuff and the reality is it isn’t. We’re not protecting them because we don’t have the power to do it.”

The runoff from snow melting on the mountaintop may have exacerbated the instability, but this home had been cracking and sliding for months and the city had declared the home unsafe, forcing the owners to move out, back in October.

Edge Homes, the builder of the home that collapsed, has blamed the slide on the “complete failure” of a retaining wall. The city has condemned two adjacent homes in the area.

Walker praised the builder’s response, saying they have “stepped up like champs” and is working well with the city. “We’re going to fix it,” the mayor said, “and then we’re going to figure out what happened.”

When the time comes, that post-mortem should include a careful look at whether the Legislature has gone too far by forcing cities to green-light projects and should consider whether homebuyers are entitled to at least a modicum of disclosure that their homes are built in a slide-prone area.

It should.

But, given how developers have their way with the Utah Legislature, it probably won’t and nothing will change. And when the next home is built on a dangerous slope and careens down the hillside, we can ask all the same questions about how it is that we let this happen.