As Ogden home slips on slope, homeowner seeks compensation and answers

Wednesday , February 01, 2017 - 5:30 AM23 comments

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — The view’s still spectacular, looking down onto a swath of homes spreading out into the distance.

“You can see why we wanted to build up here,” explains Bennett Thurgood, gesturing out the window at the rear of the Ogden home, located at the southern edge of the city. “This is the reason why — just because we love the location and love the view.”

But the sprawling, two-level home that was to be the final destination for Thurgood and wife Kassandra, the place where the couple would raise their kids, now 8 and 5, and eventually retire, now just inspires head shaking and angst. It’s cold and vacant these days. Less than two years after moving into the home he had custom built at a cost of of some $800,000, Thurgood and his family moved out last October, swapping it for a rental.

The southern half of the structure, closest to the steep falloff that gives the home its elevation and stunning view, is giving way as the land underneath erodes. Long, wide cracks snake across what was his son’s ground-floor room and what was a family room next door as part of the foundation begins to dip and sag. The retaining wall of huge rocks that was supposed to bolster the slope below the home’s southern periphery has crumbled.

“It’s progressively gotten worse since we moved out,” Thurgood said.

He still returns from time to time as a bitter legal battle unfolds in 2nd District Court in Ogden to determine who’s responsible for the mess. His wife, though, stays away.

“It just gives her anxiety so bad,” he said.

Thurgood is suing the homebuilder, Castle Creek Homes, and several other contractors involved in the project, seeking a jury trial and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

The contractors, in response, have denied any wrongdoing and Castle Creek, owned by Mike Schultz, the GOP state representative from Hooper, has filed a countersuit. The Roy-based company seeks $45,000 in compensation for what its lawyers say was the home builder’s role assisting the Thurgoods with construction oversight.

In denying liability, Schultz points to the retaining wall built to shore up the steep rise on the southern side of the home. 

“That’s an important key to this scenario. We didn’t do the wall,” Schultz said.

As more people crowd into the area along the Wasatch Front, homes steadily creep up the sides of mountains, atop ridges and outcroppings, in the foothills, along inclines.

But it’s not just about making space for more people.

There’s a draw to living with a view of sky and the world around you.

“That’s what sold me on this lot,” said Randy Quinn, who lives next door to Thurgood’s vacated home. Quinn has been there 10 years, so far without any problems.

Gregg Beukelman, who keeps tabs on instances of sliding homes as landslide project geologist for the Utah Geological Survey, puts it another way. 

“People want to look down on their neighbors,” he said.

Building on slopes carries distinct risks, though. Such sites can be more unstable, requiring retaining walls on the slopes they top off, according to Beukelman. If fill is used to level off uneven land, that, too, can necessitate special steps to make sure a home’s foundation is on solid footing.

“Some builders do really good at that. Some builders don’t do so good,” Beukelman said.

Whatever the case, instances of homes falling down hillsides are rare.

The 2014 collapse of a North Salt Lake home due to a landslide has drawn statewide attention and officials continue to monitor the neighborhood where that incident occurred for continued instability. But Beukelman figures there’ve probably been just five or six cases in Utah in the last seven years, since he started working for the state.

RELATED: North Salt Lake landslide site shifts, but mayor says no lives, homes in danger

“It hasn’t happened every year,” Beukelman said.

Schultz said he initially didn’t want to take part in construction of the Thurgood home. Castle Creek typically builds only on level terrain.

After prodding from Bennett Thurgood, though, the company agreed to assist, according to Schultz. Thurgood had already bought the parcel on East Hampton Ridge, the street where the home is located and, as Schultz describes it, Castle Creek didn’t spearhead the project, which factors in its defense in the lawsuit.

He’s sympathetic to the Thurgoods’ plight. A home is typically the largest investment a family will make. But Schultz also thinks Thurgood is unfairly blaming Castle Creek.

Aside from Schultz’s company, numerous contractors and consultants had roles in building the retaining wall supporting the slope below the home and in testing the characteristics of the soil at the construction site, a central issue in Thurgood’s lawsuit. They deny wrongdoing, like Castle Creek, and what Thurgood sees as their unwillingness to accept accountability generates his ire.

“They’ve just been kind of pointing fingers at each other,” he said.

He remembers the day last spring, after a wet spell, when a big chunk of the support wall fell. The family was still living in the home and his two kids were outside playing, though they weren’t hurt.

“All of a sudden you could hear what sounded like an earthquake,” Thurgood said. Thereafter, his children remained leery about playing outside, “worried about the yard slipping off some more.”

It’s unclear what will become of the structure, full of cracks in walls and other imperfections as the slope outside erodes.

Thus far, Thurgood, a salesman for a company that makes water distribution systems for contractors and others, figures he’s sunk $1 million into the structure, factoring its construction and, now, legal costs. It would cost more than what it’s worth to repair the retaining wall and secure the structure, he reckons, and these days his focus seems to be elsewhere.

“I would just like compensation, anything to get my life back. It’s just been an exhausting process,” he said.

Reach reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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