Ross Lamm and his family can hear their house “slowly ripping apart.” It cracks and groans as the ground beneath them slides downhill.
Theirs is one of a half-dozen homes in the third phase of the Terra Nativa project, located on Alto Via Court in the Boise Foothills, that the slide has affected. One of the homes has been deemed unfit to live in.
Lamm said the experience has been “heartbreaking” and financially devastating. Like his neighbors, he said insurance won’t cover the damage because the policy has an exemption for ground movement. They’ll have to move out at some point, and their living expenses will jump substantially.
“We’ll be paying this mortgage while we figure out our living situation,” he said.
Lamm and other Terra Nativa homeowners are plaintiffs in a lawsuit accusing several engineering firms and their workers, as well as developers Richard Pavelek and Tim Day, of failing to identify a history of landslide activity under the homes on Alto Via.
Several of the same plaintiffs, Lamm included, also filed notices of tort claims May 10, announcing that they intended to pursue legal action against the city of Boise and the Ada County Highway District for not following their own policies designed to avoid exactly the kind of destruction that’s happening.
The city has denied these claims and has not received any word of a forthcoming lawsuit, spokesman Mike Journee said. ACHD hasn’t responded to the tort claims but “they will be denied,” spokesman Craig Quintana said in an email.
Claims against the city and highway district appear to hinge on the argument that both “knew or should have known” the ground under Terra Nativa 3 was unsuitable for building.
“Since at least 1991, the Idaho Geological Survey has compiled and kept records of known landslides in the Boise Foothills,” according to the claims. “These records identify landslides in, around and under the area of development on North Alto Via Court.”
The evidence isn’t clear-cut, though, said William Phillips, a research geologist for the Idaho Geological Survey.
Several clues point to a history of landslides in the area around Terra Nativa 3, Phillips said, and past landslides are the best indicator of future landslides. But there’s nothing conclusive on the specific piece of ground under the Alto Via homes.
A team of University of Idaho students and Idaho Geological Survey staffers didn’t do their own field work when they put together the records mentioned in the tort claims, he said. Instead, they collected information from dozens of other sources and assembled them in a single database. Phillips said he knows of no one from Idaho Geological Survey who has conducted a thorough field inspection to verify the locations of landslides in the database.
Also, the database identifies a landslide in the Terra Nativa 3 area, Phillips said, but not with enough precision to ensure that it’s the exact spot where Lamm and his neighbors live. That’s because the database is an inventory of geological activity on general swaths of land, not a lot-by-lot analysis.
“It’s a scanning mechanism to look at large regions of Idaho and see where landslide hazards are high or medium or not really even possible,” Phillips said. “I don’t think (the database’s authors) were terribly concerned about spot-on accuracy over exactly where the landslides were.”
Phillips said he’s looked at other evidence, including aerial photos dating back several decades and a 1973 report by a professor at Boise State.
He found nothing conclusive in either of those resources.
The report suggests features of the nearby landscape and geology indicate past landslides, but isn’t specific to what is now Terra Nativa 3. And aerial photos appear to show landslide activity in the early to mid-1990s, Phillips said, but based on photos alone, he can’t make a definitive judgment as to the stability of a particular piece of ground.
“Ultimately, it requires an on-site inspection and even drilling or sampling — you know, that kind of thing — to establish what’s going on,” he said.
In fact, Phillips warned Eric Rossman, whose home is across Alto Via from Lamm’s, not to read too much into the fact the Idaho Geological Survey database identifies a landslide near Rossman’s home. Photos available on Google Earth might at first appear to confirm the landslide’s location, but there are discrepancies, he cautioned.
“A couple things in the database make me feel that this location may refer to another nearby slide,” Phillips wrote in an April 25 email to Rossman. “The first is that the aspect is given as (southwest) while the slide seen in the 1998 photo has a (northwest) aspect. The second thing is that the elevation is given as 3,060 feet in the database, while the 1998 slide is between 3,280 ft and 3,160 feet.”
Rossman’s law firm, Rossman Law Group, is representing Rossman and one other plaintiff in the lawsuit against Terra Nativa 3’s developers and engineers. Rossman is also a plaintiff in tort claims against the city and ACHD.
While the tort claims argue that the city of Boise and Ada County Highway District contributed to Terra Nativa 3’s fate, the lawsuit naming Pavelek and Day puts the blame squarely on the developers and engineers.
The companies and their employees failed to ascertain the danger of building in the area, according to the civil complaint. Or, if they did find danger, they didn’t communicate it.
Pavelek and Day submitted geotechnical reports to the city of Boise when they were planning Terra Nativa 3 in 2003. These reports assess geological characteristics of the ground in question. Boise requires a licensed engineer to conduct them for every Foothills development before construction begins.
The city also requires assessments of each lot in a development. It then pays third-party engineers to review the reports for accuracy and potential problems. Every Foothills development also requires a grading plan, the extent of which depends on the results of the assessments. The same step is required for each lot.
This process turned up no red flags, Journee has said repeatedly. On that point, the lawsuit agrees. The civil complaint claims that neither the engineers for the city nor the subidivision’s engineer of record “advised the city or (the developers) that the subdivision was planned to be developed on a pre-existing landslide.”
The homeowners accuse the developers and engineers of a variety of misdeeds, including breach of contract, negligence and fraud. They want the defendants to compensate them for lost property value and emotional stress.
The homeowners say they’ll show the amount of those damages at trial.
People have been building in the Boise Foothills for decades, and most places never encounter the kinds of problems Terra Nativa 3 has run into.
Even steep slopes or ground with a history of minor geological movement can be shored up, Phillips said.
“It’s possible to mitigate a landslide if you’ve got the money and time and effort,” he said.
Journee said the Boise Fire Department is keeping tabs on Terra Nativa 3. The city has warned the homeowners that putting out fires along Alto Via might not be possible because water access is limited and the condition of the land might make firefighting dangerous, he said.
And police officers are keeping an eye on the neighborhood to keep vandals and thieves away, Journee said.
Meanwhile, Lamm said his family has had to move out of the areas of their house that have sustained the most damage. He doesn’t think they’re in danger of a sudden collapse or catastrophic slide that would put their lives in danger.
Some buyers rethink Foothills over stability worries
Long before news broke that homes in the Foothills were breaking apart due to shifting ground, Lysi Bishop real estate agents such as Kristin Myers were advising buyers to take out landslide and earthquake insurance.
Now that Terra Nativa 3 has made headlines, those recommendations have hardened into something approaching requirements, Myers said. If buyers reject her advice and refuse to get the additional insurance, Myers said, she now asks them to sign a waiver to relieve her liability in case they encounter the same problems plaguing Terra Nativa 3.
“We would certainly recommend it (before Terra Nativa’s problems came to light) but now, it’s one of those things where it’s mandatory,” she said. “So it’s really, really opened up a whole new practice for it.”
One of the biggest problems facing Terra Nativa homeowners is the fact their regular homeowners insurance policies don’t cover damage caused by moving ground. So they have to keep paying the mortgages on the damaged homes, even after they’ve moved.
“Think how much these people ... would appreciate having someone have told them, ‘Hey, you need landslide or earthquake insurance up there,’ ” Myers said. “It would be saving their hides right now.”
Myers said she has some clients who decided against the Foothills because of worries about ground stability and turned their searches toward older, lower-lying neighborhoods.
Dave Kallas, an associate broker for Silvercreek Realty Group, said he hasn’t seen much of that. Then again, his Foothills focus is limited primarily to homes in the North End.
Kallas said he has yet to hear of a home in that area that’s sustained damage due to shifting ground.
Foothills development foes seize on Terra Nativa news
It’s too early to know whether news about massive damage to Terra Nativa 3 houses will dampen developers’ enthusiasm for Foothills projects, city of Boise spokesman Mike Journee said.
So far, Journee said, the city’s Planning and Development Services staff hasn’t noticed a slowdown in applications. One change they have seen: Opponents of Foothills projects are using this damage to reinforce their arguments, Journee said.
Some Highlands Neighborhood residents sent emails to William Phillips, an Idaho Geological Survey research geologist, to find out whether landslide hazards exist in the ground near Highlands Cove, a proposed 57-home project they oppose.
In fact, Terra Nativa appears to have made Phillips a popular man. Other people who’ve asked for his help recently include a Terra Nativa homeowner, an engineer who’s a defendant in a Terra Nativa lawsuit and an attorney for the Ada County Highway District.
Taking note of another subdivision’s misfortune isn’t just not-in-my-backyard expediency, said Lynette Mattson, whose backyard in the Warm Springs Mesa neighborhood abuts a piece of land where a developer wants to build Malibu Manor, a four-home project on a rise west of Toluka Way.
Mattson said she’s worried about water draining downhill from Malibu Manor and reaching her property. If a landslide ever occurred on the bluff above her, she thinks it would hit her home.
Malibu Manor is smaller than Terra Nativa 3 and the slopes aren’t as steep, but Mattson sees parallels anyway
“There’s definitely the potential for the same sort of conditions to exist,” she said.