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Residents say they noticed movement long before the slope collapsed, but a statement from city officials says North Salt Lake "did not cause the slide, nor could it have safely done anything to prevent the slide from occurring after it began to manifest itself."
City officials also say their ability to regulate development was very limited.
"Private property owners have rights under both the state and federal constitutions to the reasonable use of their property, and the city has been given very limited powers by the state Legislature to regulate the subdivision of land," according to a statement from city officials. "Current state law requires the city to approve any subdivision that meets the ordinances of the city. This subdivision met all of the ordinances of the city."
Mayor Len Arave says because geotechnical studies determined the site was suitable for development, it's unlikely the city could have denied Sky Properties the right to build in the area.
"The state law says if they go through and follow the process, if it's zoned properly, if they can show that it can be developed, the city really can't just capriciously say they can't develop the property," Arave said.
Robert Spjute, an attorney who specializes in real estate litigation with Shumway Van & Hansen, says cities often lack the resources to independently check everything they approve. But a city can remain liable if it approves a project known to be unsafe.
Current state law requires the city to approve any subdivision that meets the ordinances of the city. This subdivision met all of the ordinances of the city.
–statement from North Salt Lake officials
"The city itself, as long as they get something that says it's within the appropriate standard, they're going to approve it," Spjute said. "It's not so much that the city shouldn't make sure everything's all right. I just don't think the city has the resources to double-check every geotechnical survey that comes across their desk."
In this case, it's unlikely that liability will fall to North Salt Lake, he said.
Though city officials believe the city is not liable for the slide, there's still insufficient information to officially determine who is at fault, Arave said.
"To be honest, our major energies right now are going to be in remediating the problem and containing it. During that process, who is at fault may come up. There's a good chance that it will have to be determined by a judge someday," the mayor said. "It may just be that when we look at it, it wasn't a question of if it happened but when it happened."
Apart from the city, only a few other groups remain potentially liable for the slide, including the developer, contractors, subcontractors and the homeowners themselves, according to Spjute.
"Anyone who was involved in actually putting that subdivision together could be on the hook," he said.
Scott Kjar, vice president of EaglePointe Development, says the area was deemed safe by qualified geologists and that the developer followed proper procedure prior to building.
"We've all done what we were supposed to do," Kjar said. "Sometimes things happen that nobody could foresee, and I think that's what's happened here. Based on everybody's information, that was a safe hillside that turned out to have some problems for some reason."
The city and the developer have been involved in working to determine what caused the slide, as well as providing relief to those affected by it. Drilling and testing at the site continues, and about $15,000 in cash has been donated so far to support building a new house for the Utrilla family, whose home was destroyed, according to Kjar.
But city officials and the developer have clarified their actions to be "in the best interest of residents," not admissions of liability.
"If it becomes necessary for the city to become financially involved, the city will do so because it feels it is in the best interests of the local residents and the city as a whole," city officials stated Wednesday. "The city's motivation for doing so will not be because the city is legally liable, but because our elected officials feel it is the appropriate course of action.
Contributing: Devon Dolan