Geotechnical experts hired for land shift

A crew surveys the damage from a land slide behind the 19700 block of Terri Drive in Canyon Country, February 22, 2019. Cory Rubin/The Signal

Within a week of residents first noticing cracks growing in the brick lining their homes, at least five homes that rest at either the top or base of a hill near the 19000 block of Terri Drive have seen property sink into the ground, backyards broken apart and city engineers issue voluntary evacuations.

Sorting out the exact cause — and who will be held accountable for repairs — is going to take much longer than that.

While those five families work to evacuate and plan to rebuild what they’ve lost, they have turned to their respective homeowners associations, the developers and the city in an attempt to gain more information about how this could have happened.

According to city officials, the upper neighborhood was built as part of the American Beauty development in 1986, a year before the city of Santa Clarita was established. As for the lower neighborhood, part of the more recently constructed Trestle development, the plans for it were reviewed by city staff and approved by the City Council in the summer of 2005.

Once the development was approved, it fell onto the developers and individual homeowners associations to maintain and monitor the hillside, as both the American Beauty HOA and the Trestle HOA have shared ownership of the slope, according to Assistant City Engineer Shannon Pickett.

“I would say the geotechnical experts (hired by the HOA’s) are the best way to figure it out,” said city spokeswoman Carrie Lujan. “We don’t specialize in that.”

Each of the two HOAs’ managers are saying they are hiring their own separate geotechnical experts to conduct and compile individual reports, independent of the work and findings of the other HOA’s experts.

Both HOAs’ spokespeople, when contacted Monday, said they would release information to their homeowners when it became available, but both declined to speculate on what the likely cause for the landslide was or comment on the specifics of who should be held accountable for the geological phenomena.

And the developer for the Trestle housing project, Williams Homes, whose homes in the area were completed in the last few years, said they too were working with the geological experts to find out what went wrong, but as of Monday were unable to give any further details.

“At this point, I can’t tell you what type of grading was done” during development of the project that could have led to this issue, said Lance Williams, president of Williams Homes. “I don’t have much information right now because it’s still a developing situation.”

Now, as residents from both neighborhoods enter the eighth day of uncertainty, a mixture of feelings and opinions on the way the city and private businesses are responding have emerged, with each account differing on which official that resident spoke with last.

Trestle resident Austin Calder, who lives at the base of the slope, said there is one thing he and his neighbors believe for certain:

“When I moved in, I’m pretty sure they never said anything about it,” said Calder, who works in the construction and grading industry. “But I would always ask my wife, ‘You think this hill is going to be an issue?’ The landowners, the developer or whatever geologists were/are out there checking their work have to have known about this or someone didn’t do their job.”

Over the weekend, crews worked to tarp, sandbag and reinforce the hillside as the soil continued to sink and shift, February 25, 2019. Caleb Lunetta / The Signal

HOA/Developers perspective
The two HOA managers, which are both private firms contracted with the homeowners association and help residents in the hiring of landscapers and oversee the maintenance of their respective neighborhoods, have said they are each spearheading their own investigations into the cause of the gradually destructive land shift. They both added that they are as surprised by this latest incident as anyone.

Nick Moses, vice president of G.M. Management Inc., which services the American Beauty neighborhood on the upper portion of the hill, said they would continue to communicate with residents as their privately hired geotechnical firm works to provide updates.

“We have not released a statement … but we will be communicating with our residents,” said Moses, who then declined to comment any further.

When reached for comment, the private geology firm hired by G.M. Management, Allan E. Seward Engineering Geology Inc., confirmed the HOA management company was a client, but then also declined to comment any further.

On the lower end of the hill, the Trestle homeowners association management company, Property Management Professionals, said they share in their residents’ desire to have answers. But in the meantime they maintain that in the four years PMP has managed Trestle, they were never informed by the developer about the existence of this issue.

“Obviously we’re not going to have a lot to say until we have those reports back (from the geotechnical expert firm),” said Brad Watson, president of PMP. “At this point, it’s in the hands of the experts … and we don’t know the definitive timeline for the completion of that report.”

And because they wish to wait for the expert opinion to return before they take action, Watson said the reports from residents who said they have damage to their homes and yet have not heard from either the city or the HOA are correct, for now.

“We want to be able to do our due diligence, and I understand people are anxious for a resolution,” Watson said. “But it’s still too early for us to provide guidance” or information to homeowners who are worried about their property.

Watson said he will not comment on what they believe could have caused the landslide.

As for the developer, Williams Homes, they corroborated PMP’s statement that they too were working to understand what caused this issue, but they would not announce information until they had reviewed the geologists’ report.

“We don’t have all the details yet, but it looks like it’s owned by the associations,” said Williams. “I don’t know much more beyond that at this point.”

When asked about what would happen to homeowners such as Calder, who are looking at thousands of dollars’ worth in property damage, Williams said that was “a good question.”

In only a few days, dramatic land displacement has taken place as illustrated by one home’s backyard wall. For both photos taken on Feb. 25, the wall can be spotted clearly in picture No. 2 and in the left corner of picture No. 1. The shift in position and split between the two formerly connected segments of the wall was estimated to be approximately 30 feet horizontally, 10 feet vertically, February 25, 2019. Caleb Lunetta / The Signal

City perspective
As of Monday, the hill has been covered in plastic sheeting, sandbagged and reinforced in an attempt to slow the gradual slide occurring on the hillside, while the geotechnical experts from both the upper and lower neighborhoods’ individual homeowners association have begun to conduct independent subterranean investigations into the cause of the issue, according to city officials.

“The HOAs are in charge of maintaining the hill … and the landslide crosses into both developments,” said Pickett, the assistant city engineer for the city of Santa Clarita.

Pickett added the city has been and will continue to send out its own inspectors to monitor the two separate investigations happening on behalf of each HOA managing company. Those city staffers will oversee the voluntary evacuations of the homes and would not be directly involved with the endeavor to mitigate the soil slippage or interfere with work being done by the private geotechnical experts hired by the HOAs.

“Our main role is to make sure the homeowners are safe (while the subsurface studies are being completed),” said Lujan, the city spokeswoman.

City Hall officials said city staff would look at the recommendations presented by the privately hired geotechnical firms when their findings are completed in approximately five to six weeks, but re-emphasized that the burden of responsibility and working with the residents whose homes were being damaged due to the geological event fell on either the developers or the HOAs.

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