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Developers in landslide area point the finger at homeowner, others

SALT LAKE CITY — Developers on a hillside of North Salt Lake that came down in a landslide are now pointing to a homeowner, among others, whose backyard split away, saying he watered his lawn too much last year, contributing to the problem.

"It's outrageous," said Paul Evans, whose home dangles on the edge of a precipice created by the landslide. "They're simply grasping at straws and trying to divert attention from their own actions.

"Hasn't the Evans family been through enough already," he said.

In a countersuit filed Tuesday in 2nd District Court, Eaglepointe Development and Bountiful-based SKY Properties deny allegations that they had anything to do with the mountain's Aug. 5 demise.

The developers point to actions by a natural gas company that owns and operates two pipelines near the slide, two geotech firms that studied the land prior to further development, the local tennis club for expanding a parking lot at the base of the hill, and to Paul and Jeanette Evans, whose "historical practice of introducing excessive amounts of water into the soils and hillside … resulted in water migrating into the hillside … contributing to the instability of the soil," court documents state.

The response states that though an early Aug. 5 rainstorm was the last straw, triggering a landslide in the foothills of North Salt Lake later that morning, the named parties are also to blame.

Nearly a year after the slide, no one has taken responsibility for it, or for the compromised property values and the safety of residents there. Though further development has been halted, the city continues to work on a plan to remediate the hillside and restore some confidence.

But North Salt Lake has stopped short at a lack of funding.

"We're anxious to get going on this," North Salt Lake City Manager Barry Edwards, said Wednesday. "There's no reason we shouldn't already be going, we just have to give people time to make decisions."

Those decisions involve various unconfirmed benefactors, as the job is estimated to cost $2 million and would require building a retaining wall at the bottom, softening the slope at the top and filling in any major crevices and re-seeding the surface to provide stability.

Since no one claims responsibility, no one has stepped forward to pay for it and the city doesn't have the resources to cover any of the necessary fixes.

Eaglepointe, however, wants the "responsible parties" it cites in its response to pay for the damages, according to court documents.

The lawsuits and finger-pointing, Edwards said, "doesn't help" the situation. He anticipates that some portion of the ongoing issues will end up being decided in court, but said remediation of the hillside shouldn't be stalled because of it.

A representative with the Kern River Gas Transmission Company, which operates the gas lines near the slide, declined to comment on the suit or any involvement in the issue. And legal representation for GSH Geotechnical, that performed one of two geological studies on the land prior to development, asked for time to read the countersuit.

John Smith, the owner of Earthtec Engineering, Inc., which is no longer in business, said he is unaware of details surrounding the landslide. But Smith said when a geotechnical firm performs work for a developer, it is generally expected that the developer follows the guidelines that result or abandons the property.

"But that's the contractor's responsibility," he said, adding that contractors typically do follow various environmental recommendations.

"It's like everything, though, there are good contractors and developers, and bad ones. That's why you have to choose them based on references," Smith said.

In response to an original lawsuit filed by Kern River that points to the developer's actions for the damage, Eaglepointe accuses Paul and Jeanette Evans for using "nearly two-and-a-half times more gallons per year than their neighbor who owns a comparably sized lot," therefore "contributing to the instability of the soil."

Paul Evans said he is "shocked" at being pitted against multimillion-dollar companies on the matter.

He said he believes he was singled out in the counterclaim because of his recent outcry that was borne by almost a years' worth of frustration as nothing has been done to fix the stark hillside that descends from his backyard. He believes the companies pointing at his water use have no evidence to accuse him of any damages and he's been told the comparison isn't even accurate.

The Evans' home sits on 9/10ths of an acre and contains a swimming pool, while the other lot occupies a third of an acre and has no pool, he said.

The claim reveals records from North Salt Lake Public Works, showing water usage in the past five years that varies each year between 330,000 gallons, the lowest, in 2011, and 556,000 gallons, the highest, in 2014. Paul Evans said he drained and refilled his 30,000-gallon pool multiple times in 2014 due to concerns that began with the landslide.

Regardless, he said, the tally doesn't account for rainfall each year and doesn't prove anything.

"It needs to be clear that the hillside was moving well before the landslide," Paul Evans said, adding that developers were informed of cracking in 2012 and in 2013, but did little to mitigate it. He maintains that continued development above his home and the slide area, as well as an influx of several thousand tons of fill dirt led to the ultimate slide, which took out one home and parts of fixtures at the tennis club on the way down.

And while mitigation efforts are ongoing and various funding discussions still in flux, the hillside hasn't moved except for settling since the major August slide. A natural process of erosion, Edwards said, is going to take place, which will continue changing the landscape on the hillside.

He said he's still hopeful a fix is on its way.

"There are a lot of moving parts," Edwards said. "As far as people being in danger, we think (the hillside) is stable, but we do think it needs to be fixed."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards