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Living atop a big, hibernating landslide
By Kristen Moulton
The Salt Lake Tribune
Published May 13, 2007 8:10 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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
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Francis Ashland, a state geologist, stands on a street overlooking the Eaglewood Golf Course and shakes his head.

In every direction, luxury homes line the golf course and hillside streets of North Salt Lake and Bountiful.

Many sit smack dab on Davis County's largest landslide, designated No. 1059 in the 1970s. It measures about 1 mile by 1 mile, and Eagle Ridge Drive (it turns into Bountiful Boulevard in Bountiful) serves roughly as its western boundary.

"This landslide is so big that there are landslides in the landslide," Ashland says. "This would be a big disaster if this slide reactivated."

Smaller potential catastrophes lurk all over southern Davis County because the foothills are filled with an unlucky geologic combination: an abundance of slides and a plethora of springs.

If you live east of Eagle Ridge-Bountiful Boulevard and south of the LDS temple all the way to the Salt Lake County line, you are either on or near a landslide, Ashland warns.

Residents of an older North Salt Lake neighborhood near the base of the hills grapple with real, not potential, bad luck. And they wonder if those hilltop subdivisions contributed to their misery.

The Spring Hill slide forced demolition of one home in 1998, and last year newlyweds Mary and Glade Christensen and their blended family of five children had to leave the home they had purchased on Valley View Drive just a year before.

The house, at the toe of the Spring Hill slide, was condemned and another next door is barely habitable. The owners there dug a 6-foot-deep and 4-foot-wide trench at the rear of their yard to give the slide somewhere to go. Pavement in front of those two homes and another house is folded like a rug.

Before her family fled, Mary Christensen says, her home was being wrenched apart. Walls cracked and buckled, some doors would not open and others would not stay shut.

"We started feeling vertigo," she says. "You could actually feel yourself walking uphill in certain parts of the house and walking downhill in parts of the house."

For some neighbors, waiting for the slide to do what it will is like water torture. They see property values drop and wonder if they should sell or hold on.

"What do you do when you want to get out of it and that's where all of your money is, and yet you don't want to saddle anyone else with your problem?" asks Davis County Assessor James Ivie, who trimmed the value of three homes after the 2005-06 slide.

Craig Call, Utah's outgoing property-rights ombudsman, says sellers and real-estate agents are ethically and legally obligated to disclose anything significant they know about a property.

Of course, that doesn't always happen. Sometimes, residents keep mum about surrounding slide threats to sustain their homes' property values and marketability.

Disclosure was an issue the Christensens brought in a lawsuit against the former owners and a real estate agent. It was settled out of court.

North Salt Lake Councilwoman Lisa Watts Baskin began huddling with neighborhood residents when she heard they felt ignored by the city. But she laments the city can do little aside from monitoring the slide's movement.

"The question is: Are we fiscally responsible to our city and all of our residents if we try to correct a problem that may never be corrected?" Watts Baskin asks. "It's a very delicate balance."

The Christensens' attorney, Todd Jensen, echoes the sentiment of many residents. They argue that a decade of massive cuts and fills, truckloads of dirt and the presence of hundreds of large new homes and roads above them have altered the hill's springs and water channels and the soils' stability.

"I don't think it's a coincidence," Jensen says. "Something changed that caused that slope to break off."

City Engineer Paul Ottoson doubts the theory. His bet is on the wet weather. "When the dry years hit, it stopped sliding."

Above Eagle Ridge Drive, many residents are unaware their homes are on landslides.

"Oh, lovely," says Marianne Smith, when told her house east of the Eaglewood Golf Course is part of landslide No. 1059.

Smith and her family moved to North Salt Lake from San Diego several years ago. Their home has no cracks, but rocks of a retaining wall holding back a steep hillside behind the house are tipped.

Lauri Hyer, whose family moved from the Bay area and built a home eight years ago above the golf course, says her 15-year-old son, Trent, who has been studying geology in school, recently alerted his parents to the hill's hazards.

"If we get too much rain," Trent says, "we're screwed."

Mary Ellen Smoot - whose husband, Stan Smoot, developed the Eaglewood area - is dubious of the notion her home sits on a landslide. "We're on rock," she says.

Ashland agrees that conglomerate rock underlies many of the homes. But under that rock are a few inches of clay that can trap water, resulting in a greasy, slick layer.

That's why UGS geologists look for evidence of moving earth several times a year. So far, they have charted small slippage but no large-scale sliding.

In Bountiful, poor drainage forced Ivory Homes to add spiral piers under two homes in the Summerwood Subdivision, says City Planner Aric Jensen.

Both cities say they require geologic and geotechnical reports before allowing construction in suspected slide areas. But Ashland says few developer-hired consultants ever say no.

"We have on file thousands of predevelopment reports," Ashland says. "I can show you one in which the consultant said, 'Don't build.' ''

Mary Christensen says she and her husband learned a lesson. Never again will they live on or below a steep hill - especially because slides can strike slopes as gradual as 15 percent.

"It ruins lives," she says. "Everybody loses."

kmoulton@sltrib.com

Possible Reforms

The Governor's Geologic Hazards Working Group will recommend that local governments and the state:

* Update, digitize and post online geologic-hazard maps.

* Ensure city and county planners and planning commissioners are trained to understand property rights and litigation threats.

* Craft a model geologic-hazards ordinance for cities and counties and encourage them to add a hazards element to their general plans.

* Establish new grading codes based on California's experiences.

* Provide geologic engineering and geotechnical expertise to local governments.

* Ensure geotechnical experts' recommendations are heeded.

* Bolster Utah's standards for engineering geologists and geotechnical engineers.

* Enhance engineering geology programs at Utah universities.

* Form a task force to change disclosure of geologic hazards to home buyers.

* Create a post-mortem process to learn what went wrong when landslides occur.



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