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Jay Evensen: Hillside danger — Utah's terra never has been very firma

Published: Thursday, Aug. 7 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, Aug. 9 2014 7:49 p.m. MDT

A home is destroyed by a landslide in North Salt Lake, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014.

(Trenton Jensen, Skyward Aerial Imaging)

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In Utah, terra is not exactly firma. The hills, in fact, are alive, and they’re eating houses.

That should come as no surprise to anyone. We don’t need Julie Andrews, or even Carrie Underwood, to sing it to us. Nature knows the tune, although I’m told the sound is deafening.

But she doesn’t sing it very often, which may explain why we become complacent. People who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it, and all that.

Most of the time, Utah’s hillsides are beautiful and solid, but eventually they get restless. They shake the pretenders off like some irritated sleeping giant. Something catches fire, it rains too hard or some other natural or man-made condition comes along and houses begin to slide.

When that happens, we earn a free ticket to the blame game, which is in full swing right now in North Salt Lake. As I write this, rain is pelting my office window. That means it will be a little while yet before crews can begin finding a “more permanent” solution, as news reports optimistically put it.

On Tuesday, the hills above North Salt Lake offered their own opinion on permanence. As heavy rain battered the area, part of the hill slid into a beautiful home of recent vintage, crushing it the way some prehistoric reptilian monster might have. Four more houses remain in danger.

The developer said it hired a soil engineer before construction began and received the OK. City officials said they hired engineers and got the same answer. “Stuff happened,” Scott Kjar, of the developer, Sky Properties, told KSL.

And stuff is going to hit the fan once insurance companies, the developer and the city get into it. The mayor of North Salt Lake said the city and developer stand ready to help homeowners, “if we only knew how to fix it,” according to the Deseret News.

There is only one way to fix it. Quit building on hillsides.

I say this with the authority of someone who has written this column before, and more than once.

Twelve years ago, a mountainside in Santaquin did a disappearing act. Neighbors dropped in on each other without going outside. A reporter for this newspaper interviewed engineers and planning directors across the Wasatch Front. One of them told him more slides are inevitable. “It’s not if. It’s when.”

The state project geologist at the time, Rich Giraud, said, “There are a number of communities that are at risk.”

I wrote a column that summer that said people had no excuse for being surprised. “No matter which side of the political fence you choose to park your lawn chair,” I wrote, “you ought to acknowledge that this is a game with no perceivable end in sight. If developers and landowners could find a way to build on air, they would do it.”

I said that with some authority, too, having written in the summer of 1995 about a developer who wanted to build luxury homes on a level shelf of land “about 100 feet up and 450 feet back from the nearest road in Olympus Cove — where they would sit like medieval fortresses.”

The idea was to build a tram to bring homeowners in and out, and maybe even provide a pad or two for helicopters. Fortunately, Salt Lake County rejected that idea, but not without the developer complaining that, “it’s only right we are allowed to develop our own land.”

That loaded phrase has carried the day in too many cases. Property rights are indeed important, but so is the concept that your property should not begin to infringe on somebody else’s.

Governments up and down the Wasatch Front have set limits on construction when the slope becomes too steep. But clearly, 30 percent on one hill may not be as firm as 30 percent on another. And it really isn’t clear which is which until conditions are just right, or in this case, just wrong.

We have let things get out of hand, one project at a time. The problem isn’t new. It certainly isn’t a surprise, and I suspect this isn’t the last time we will have to learn the lesson.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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