Homes below North Salt Lake slide are safe, but for how long?

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NORTH SALT LAKE -- A hillside suddenly gave way in North Salt Lake, tumbling down from one home toward two others below.


It happened just after 7 a.m. Monday with a rumble and a roar near Eagle Ridge Drive in North Salt Lake. Tons of dirt, rocks, mud and broken pipes slid down the hill. They formed a new cliff just a step or two away from the home above, and debris poured into the backyards of two homes below. A boulder crashed into one house, although it did little damage.

"We looked out the window and saw that the wall had come down and, at that point, I also saw that the water was shooting out of the wall from the sprinkler system and from the water main. So I was concerned that the water was still going to cause more of a slide," said a neighbor below the home, who asked that his name not be used.

The question now is, are those homes safe to live in?

City officials have tentatively decided the homes are safe to live in for now, but that conclusion is still under review.

"It's our belief that, if no more water is placed on that hill, that the home will stabilize," Edwards said.

But residents said they're worried, especially because heavy rain is predicted in the next few days.

Randy Tran owns the home where the slide occurred. "I'm very worried right now that my house could fall down the hill," he said.

"Right now it's a disaster, but if they don't get busy it could be a catastrophe," said North Salt Lake City Manager Barry Edwards.

The hillside that collapsed was actually a three-tiered backyard: three terraces with rock retaining walls at each level. The terraces had lawns with buried sprinklers.

City engineers believe excess water in the soil caused the walls to come tumbling down.

"Right now it's a disaster, but if they don't get busy it could be a catastrophe," said North Salt Lake City Manager Barry Edwards.

This is not a new issue for these neighbors. The same backyard collapsed at least once before, triggering a lawsuit and a protracted legal battle.

That landslide three years ago was also blamed on a broken water pipe, just two weeks after the Tran family moved in.

City officials insist the engineering was sound and the backyard should have been safe -- but the hillside was apparently undone by a problem with lawn sprinklers that's quite common.

"I'm thinking, they should not build a house right on this hill, because this soil here is not safe to building the home," Tran said.

The Mendez family lives just below the Tran home. They say the slide three years ago cost them $43,000.

"We had to get an attorney because their insurance company refused to pay for all of our damages," Bonnie Mendez said.

They battled with lawyers for three years, finally settling out of court. Last summer the Mendezes became alarmed again when the Trans started building a massive new set of retaining walls.

"I called the city and I asked them to come check on it because I didn't think it was going to be secure," Mendez said.

She saved a reassuring voice message from city official Jerry Thomas last July: "We've actually been in contact with the contractor up behind you, and we're actually trying to work with them to make sure everything is done in a proper manner."

Now, everyone wants to know why a project that was supposed to be safe went so dangerously wrong.

Tran acknowledges he had leaky sprinklers Sunday but says he fixed them. Records show the Trans used 12,000 gallons of water in the last 10 days.

"I don't know if a pipe broke, I don't know if they just overwatered. But it appears to me that for some reason there was a spike in their water use, and from what I observed of the water it looked like most it was in the backyard this morning," Edwards said.

A question now being raised is whether there should be tougher restrictions on building or landscaping to prevent such a simple problem from escalating into a dangerous situation.

In spite of new cracks in the Trans' foundation, city officials believe the hillside is stable if no more water is added.

Edwards acknowledges that the retaining wall system might have been safer without lawn sprinklers; for example, if there was a rule requiring xeriscaping instead of lawns. But he says he believes government should interfere with private property owners as little as possible.


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John Hollenhorst


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