Assessing landslide risk falls to Utah homeowners

Thursday , August 14, 2014 - 5:05 PM

Utah Landslide-2

A hillside is shown following a landslide in a hillside community of North Salt Lake, Utah, Tuesday...

By ANNIE KNOX Associated Press

NORTH SALT LAKE — Homeowners in this Davis County mountainside community feared a cracked ridgeline above their property would send a landslide crashing below. They alerted city officials, who hired crews that began to raze the slope but couldn’t prevent a rock and debris from breaking away and smashing into a home.

In Utah, hundreds of such slides threaten to tear away from ridgelines around the state, geologists say, but science has no way to forecast the exact moment when they will collapse. No formal state or federal system tracks the slides, so geologists have few tools to map and predict future catastrophes.

Without an official warning system, people considering mountainside neighborhoods are left to assess the risk for themselves using hazard maps and checklists posted by state and federal geologists. Those resources, however, are limited, experts say, and few people know to look for such indicators, even in Utah, where loose rock covers absorbent clay and creates a particularly high landslide risk.

“People look at the news and say, ‘Phew, at least it wasn’t my house.‘ But it could be their house tomorrow,” said Kimm Harty, the deputy director of the Utah Geological Survey.

There are no plans underway to develop a comprehensive national system to monitor landslide risk. Such a protocol could cost tens of millions of dollars annually and take more than a decade to complete. Experts, meanwhile, say there has been little public outcry for such an effort.

“Landslides are typically not on the public’s radar screen,” said Francis Ashland, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

In the wake of last week’s slide, a North Salt Lake legislator hopes to change that. Republican Rep. Becky Edwards is working on a measure to get more landslide information to city officials but has yet to hash out the details, she said Wednesday.

“I’m trying to make sure we get an opportunity for good, reliable data,” she said.

This year a slide killed at least 18 people in northwest Washington state, highlighting how little focus is trained to potential slides even as experts say more people are moving onto previously uninhabited slopes where new development can disturb soil, overload slopes and soak the ground with runoff or sprinkler water — all factors that can trigger landslides.

Officials are investigating the cause of the Aug. 5 slide in the North Salt Lake neighborhood. The North Salt Lake city manager said recently that there appears to have been unpermitted construction done in the area that sits on a former gravel pit used during freeway expansion ahead of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The development company that built the destroyed home and much of the surrounding neighborhood says all of the work it has done in the area has been properly permitted.

The crush of falling rock and debris prompted the evacuation of more than two dozen homes, including the one that was smashed just after eight family members scrambled out. There were no injuries or deaths, but one home remains under threat of another slide.

Neighbors remain concerned. “You don’t get any sleep,” said Leslie Fredette, who lives near the smashed home. “Every noise you hear, you think it’s another slide.”

Federal hazard maps show a broad picture of landslide risk but don’t target specific neighborhoods. More specific data could cost around $60,000 per slope, said Ed Harp of the U.S. Geological Survey.

“This is not a nice, concise, pretty little problem. It’s kind of nasty,” Harp said, adding that builders aren’t required to consult the government studies.

In Utah, when homes are constructed on hillsides, the work of determining slide risk lies with outside consultants who advise developers and cities on a case-by-case basis.

Deciding whether to build then becomes “a function of what the engineers allow us to do,” said Scott Kjar, vice president of Eaglepointe Development. Kjar has said his company is donating a plot of land to the displaced family and leading a fundraising effort to help them rebuild. The family’s insurance for the home built in 2012 doesn’t cover landslides.

Consultants at GSH Geotechnical, which in 2003 and again in 2013 found the North Salt Lake slope to be stable for development, declined to speak with The Associated Press.

The state in 2008 mapped the potential for slides in the area and gave it a “red zone” designation, saying it’s susceptible to slides and a location “where special studies to address landslide hazards are recommended.” The map is available on the Davis County website.

Landslide data also are available on the Utah Geological Survey website, said Jeff Moore, a landslide geologist at the University of Utah.

“At some level, you have to rely on permitting process, that the city has done their due diligence,” he said.

But in Utah, cities aren’t liable for the building permits they hand out, said Jack Helgesen, a Utah attorney who has argued on the side of Utah homeowners hit by landslide.

Instead, potential liability falls on the builder. To win a suit against a contractor, homeowners generally must prove the contractor knowingly lied to them about the stability of the lot or home. “When a house slides down the hill,” he said, “it’s difficult to find the responsible person.”

The lack of resolution “makes you angry,” Fredette said. “We don’t trust anybody to do the right thing.”

Associated Press correspondent Brady McCombs contributed to this report.

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