CENTERVILLE - When it comes to guarding against potential landslides on private property, city officials say there’s only so much they can do.
Geologic reports say that the hills of Davis County are full of historic landslides, fault lines and deposits of gravel that all contribute to the ground’s instability under certain circumstances. Though North Salt Lake, Bountiful, Centerville and other cities have passed zoning regulations to ease the pressure on the hillsides, the state’s private property laws mean that their jurisdictions extend only so far.
“Case law says you have to have a significant public cause to say no (to someone who wants to build on private property),” said Centerville Community Development Director Cory Snyder. “If you just say no without what the law considers to be a good enough reason, (the developer) sues you.”
Though city staff say that neither Centerville nor Bountiful have had a landslide that affected homes in at least the last decade, Snyder said that there are some secondary surface fault ruptures through existing developments. There have also been debris slides in uninhabited areas.
To help combat the risk, Centerville officials have created hillside overlay zoning, as well as a foothills plan that determines how much of the hillside can safely be developed. Still, Snyder said that even the most detailed surveys can only determine so much.
“I don’t think there’s an engineer out there who can provide a guarantee,” he said. “All they can provide is risk management.”
In Bountiful, city engineer and public works director Paul Rowland said that most of the construction on the hillside has been fill-in of small, four- or five-acre properties already between other developments. All of that construction has fallen under the purview of the city’s hillside zoning ordinances.
“We strive to identify potential problems and work to avoid or mitigate them,” said Rowland. “But we live on the side of a mountain.”
Though all three cities currently have zoning specifically designed to mitigate potential hillside risks, the push to do so is relatively new.
“It wasn’t until maybe five years ago that state law began to address municipal laws regarding geologic ordinances,” said Snyder. “Until then, cities did as they saw fit.”
North Salt Lake did insist on a geologic survey for the development affected by last week’s slide when it was built in 2003. The136-page document is now available for public viewing under the “GRAMA request” link on the main page of nslcity.org, and offers both a detailed survey of potential instability concerns and recommendations for meeting those concerns.
“It’s hard to identify every single potential problem,” said Rowland. “All the engineering research on earth may not discover that one last factor.”
North Salt Lake approved the development after Sky Properties met those qualifications, also requiring to meet the standards of the zoning for the area. In 2012, the same developer asked the planning commission to waive the lot size requirements on another development. The planning commission said no.
Once the standards are met, however, the issue is out of the city’s hands.
“Utah is very protective of private property rights,” said Snyder. “Case law says that cities can enact ‘reasonable’ safety regulations over private property, so cities are forced into this constant test of ‘when can the cities say no?’ If a developer follows all the zoning regulations and we tell them they only have the right to use their property for open space, it doesn’t sit very well.”