Eric Rossman said he and his wife have “gutted” their house on North Alto Via Court in the Boise Foothills, filling three storage units with windows, doors, cabinets and other salvageable items.
The family plans to use those materials someday to build a new house to replace the one they were still living in less than a year ago — the same house that started breaking apart last spring thanks to a slow-moving landslide beneath it.
“The storage units are quite expensive, and then getting someone to use all that stuff is almost as costly as building a house,” Rossman said. “And then transporting it, paying movers to move all that stuff. It’s quite an expense.”
So when they do build, would they choose another Foothills lot? That sounds unlikely.
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“Flatlands,” Rossman said.
‘A LOT OF STRESS’
The landslide that chased the Rossmans out of their home did the same to a handful of other families who once lived in the third phase of the upscale Terra Nativa subdivision, located south of Table Rock Road.
The damage started appearing in early 2016. Damage to one elaborate home on the west side of the road was especially pronounced, with huge cracks opening in the patio and walls.
As the months passed, it became apparent that the home stood on top of a fault line between ground that was moving and ground that wasn’t.
Soon, other properties started showing damage. A chasm appeared in the ground between the street and the houses east of it. Within a few months, everyone had moved out.
None of these properties was insured against landslides because most homeowner policies have ground-movement exemptions. So the people who lived there were caught owing huge mortgage payments on places that suddenly were uninhabitable.
Rossman said he and his wife, whose children are grown, rented a house for a while. Then they bought a much smaller home, where they’re living now.
“As long as we have our family, we still have (a home),” he said. “And losing a house doesn’t prevent that, but it certainly creates a lot of stress in a relationship and a lot of stress in someone’s life. It’s been very difficult for both of us. It certainly hasn’t ruined us, but it has been very challenging.”
Efforts to contact other families who lived on Alto Via were unsuccessful.
Those families, including the Rossmans, are plaintiffs in two lawsuits relating to Terra Nativa. One suit names the project’s developers, the city of Boise, several engineering firms and their employees, the homeowners association and a real estate firm as defendants.
In November 2003, according to this lawsuit, developers Richard Pavelek and Tim Day hired Strata, an engineering and professional services firm with an office in Boise, to conduct geotechnical evaluations of the land that would become Terra Nativa’s third phase. The city of Boise hired California-based engineering firm Kleinfelder to review Strata’s assessment.
At no point did anyone identify the land as a historic landslide, which would mean the ground has a much greater risk of sliding again, according to the lawsuit. This failure was in spite of the plaintiffs’ claim that decades’ worth of geological research pointed to the presence of landslides “in, around and under the area of development on North Alto Via Court.”
The second suit is against the Ada County Highway District, which controls public roads throughout the county. According to this lawsuit, the highway district failed to require the developers to obtain geological and geotechnical assessments for the roads and associated infrastructure, such as drainage systems.
‘SALT IN THE WOUNDS’
The lawsuits could take years to settle. Meanwhile, Rossman said, the homeowners are trying to renegotiate the mortgages on the ruined homes. Some banks are being more cooperative than others, he said.
Some of Rossman’s former neighbors have bought new places, but others are renting, he said.
Every week, the vacant houses look a little worse. Their walls, floors and ceilings are cracking, torn apart by the shifting ground underneath them.
But another reason they look worse is that vandals have destroyed windows and other features. Boise police officers have responded to 11 reports of suspicious or criminal activity, department spokeswoman Haley Williams said. Homeowners suspect that’s just a sampling of the true number of incidents, she said.
“It’s just kind of salt in the wounds for those homeowners,” Williams said.
There have been no reports of violence, injuries or people squatting in the homes.
“The walls are unstable,” Williams said. “There is a real safety risk and that alone is reason for us to try to get people to stay away.”
The police department also hopes people stop damaging the houses because the owners might want to salvage the materials still in them.