Since May, Gee Denton and her neighbors, Scott and Carolyn VanZant, have battled to save their Baycrest Subdivision homes from the ravages of erosion. The sensitivity of these hillside properties, located on the Kachemak Bay side of the Sterling Highway as it climbs to the top of Baycrest Hill, is well known.
Why then, Denton and the VanZants wonder, did the city’s natural gas distribution project allow for disturbing an area recognized for its fragile nature?
During the past two summers, as the city and Enstar Natural Gas finalized plans to bring natural gas to the Homer area, Denton and the VanZants stayed apprised of the project by reading updates on Enstar’s website and in local newspapers.
“I only read articles they did for the paper about primarily boring and touting they strive to leave land better than when they found it and was certain they would only be allowed by the city of Homer to leave a minimal footprint in this neighborhood,” said Carolyn VanZant.
Her trust in the city dated back to 2006 when Homer Electric Association attempted to deliver power to Country Club Estates, a subdivision nearer Kachemak Bay and to the west of Baycrest Subdivision, a subdivision dating back to 1967. HEA’s proposed route included a section along Judy Rebecca Court, a short gravel street in the heart of Baycrest Subdivision.
Concerned homeowners on both sides of the street banned together to form Baycrest Subdivision Neighborhood Alliance. They argued the project’s plan to remove trees in their area endangered the stability of the slope on which their homes were built. That vegetation was all that kept their property from sloughing over a bluff, they said.
Upon review, the city revoked HEA’s work order. In an Aug. 31, 2006, letter to HEA, Homer City Manager Walt Wrede said the city was reluctant to encourage development in Country Club Estates before “proper planning and regulatory review” had been done.
“Further, the city has concluded that it is not in the public interest to jeopardize properties in an older established neighborhood and risk causing additional erosion and slope failure to their detriment in order to provide electric service to an area which has not been, but should be subject to normal planning and regulatory reviews before further subdividing and development can occur,” said Wrede.
The matter went to court and in 2008 Kenai Superior Court Judge Carl Bauman ruled that the city had improperly revoked HEA’s right-of-way permit. However, in the meantime, HEA had devised an alternate plan that bypassed Judy Rebecca Court.
The VanZants live at the end of Judy Rebecca on a .44-acre, triangle-shaped piece of land that borders the street to the north, Denton’s property to the east and a steep canyon that forms their southwest border. Anticipating the availability of natural gas, they had paid Enstar to have it brought to their home.
In April, Enstar’s contractor Clark Management installed the pipeline on Tanja Court, a muddy, one-lane road below Judy Rebecca. A 30-foot-wide right-of-way on the uphill side of Tanja Court was clearcut, a trench was dug, the pipe installed, the trench refilled and, along most of the disturbed area, wood chips, netting and grass seed were spread.
In May, the front windows of the VanZant home cracked. Their toilet no longer sat level on the bathroom floor. Doors wouldn’t close. Walking across the deck sent strong earthquake-like tremors through the house. Removing the structure’s skirting, the VanZants discovered leaking pipes and the Sonotube foundation tilted downhill.
“My first interaction was with the city manager,” said VanZant of writing to Wrede. “We certainly didn’t want to sabotage the (gas line) effort, but knew full well what they did to protect us six years ago from HEA.”
Wrede responded that VanZant’s concerns would be forwarded to Enstar.
VanZant also contacted Enstar. Worried that additional work to bring natural gas to her and her husband’s home would cause more damage, she withdrew their application and had their money refunded.
Denton owns two parcels. She purchased one next to the VanZants as an investment. It’s neighboring piece came with a log cabin and a house that has been her home since 1999, the same year the VanZants purchased their property.
In May, what Denton describes as a “river” formed under the log cabin. Its Sonotube foundation began to tip downhill. The cabin began slipping off its foundation. She turned to Ben Harness and Dave Northup of Techno Metal Post Alaska for help.
“Her cabin was basically falling over down the hill,” said Northup.
A three-week project raised the cabin, installed a steel pile foundation and halted the cabin’s downhill movement.
Water in excess of 100 gallons a day also began gushing from the hillside behind Denton’s house. Denton attempted to remove the water one bucket at a time, but resorted to a pump when the flow became too much to handle.
She believes some of what occurred is attributable to city snow removal two winters ago. Snow from Judy Rebecca was dumped into Denton’s parking area. In addition to knocking her propane tank onto its side, the massive amount of snow formed a thick, 18-inch layer of ice that eventually melted and super-saturated the soil. That plus disruption of the subsurface water flow by installation of the gas line is Denton’s explanation for what occurred.
In an email to Wrede, Denton said that although erosion had been a concern since she moved to Judy Rebecca, the magnitude of what was happening was unprecedented. She included photos of the clearcutting and the cutting to the slope that had occurred as part of the pipeline installation.
“It is sad to think that those in places of decisions like these would not be required to evaluate the magnitude of their actions,” Denton told Wrede. “One day’s work for those who did the clearcutting and damage compared to one’s life investment hardly seems imaginable to me.”
Wrede responded that he would forward her concerns to Enstar.
“I don’t want to get your hopes up, though,” said Wrede in his email to Denton. “Enstar had the right to do the work they did within the (right of way). I have seen the pictures of the work they did and walked down there myself to take a look. I think — I am not an engineer or a hydrologist — that it would be very difficult to demonstrate or prove that the water problem you are having around your foundation is a direct result of the work that was done in the (right of way).”
In addition to having a new foundation installed for her log cabin, Denton worked through the summer to stabilize the hillside behind her home. She stacked sandbags to create a retaining wall, covered it with 80,000 pounds of rock and dug a ditch to divert the water away from her house.
Northup recently completed work on the VanZants’ home. Steel piles were inserted 14 feet into the hillside at a 30-degree angle on the Judy Rebecca side of the structure and a cabling system attached the piles to the house in an effort to stop additional movement. On the downhill side of the house, Northup and his crew installed additional piles for support and the VanZants had John Brandt of Homer Roofing add reenforced skirting.
Although Northup said that type of work is typical for his company, especially in Homer “where things are kind of moving downhill,” he characterized Denton’s and VanZants’ situation as “extreme.”
“A lot of contractors around town say everything leans toward the bay,” said Northup. “I think that’s true. Whatever the rate is, everything is receding back to the bay as gravity does its trick.”
Having met with Denton and seen what has occurred at the her and the VanZants’ properties, John Bishop of Bishop Engineering has offered a proposal to examine the soil and the amount of subsurface water and help assess existing risks. Water is the “real kicker,” he said, but a properly designed drainage system “may be a way to arrest that slipping motion of the soil.”
Asked if he could identify a connection to the installation of the natural gas pipeline, Bishop said “not yet,” but wanted to review the as-built drawings to see what material was placed in the trench beneath the pipe.
“There are situations where trenching and the material they put in trenches afterwards can create a way for water to move that wasn’t there before,” said Bishop.
While he hopes the landowners will agree to work with him, Bishop said, “That whole hillside is moving. So, it would be better if more in the community were doing something, one big effort.”
After spending hours examining the Judy Rebecca Court properties, geologist Mike McCarthy identified two causes behind the recent erosion problems. One is the trenching and vegetation removed for the pipeline installation.
“(The other) is the water problem from plugged ditches,” said McCarthy of ditches, as well as culverts, that have become overgrown, making it impossible for water to drain.
Carey Meyer, the city’s Public Works director, said the city adheres to a ditch-cleaning schedule, however.
“When all this came up … it kind of triggered us to say let’s make sure all of our drainages are working,” said Meyer, who was assured by his crew that “everything is open and it couldn’t be unmaintained drainage facilities that could cause anything that anyone is complaining about.”
Meyer said Enstar’s work was done under a permit from the city.
“We’re responsible in some way for controlling the work, but did not see a connection between what Enstar did and complaints from property owners that damage occurred on their property was caused by the Enstar contractor,” he said.
Whether to bore so vegetation would be undisturbed or clearcut and trench was “a group decision,” said Meyer of agreements made between Enstar, the contractor and the city. “But in this case, Enstar’s contractor was working in the right of way under a permit from the city so we are involved in helping make those kinds of decisions.”
Shirley Thompson, Denton’s Judy Rebecca neighbor to the east, also took exception to Enstar’s installation method. She said it undermined the root system of a large birch tree on the Tanja Court side of her property. She has had it secured with cables in an effort to keep the tree alive.
When Bryan Zak returned home from traveling last spring, he was surprised at the amount of clearcutting done to install the gas line along the Rene Court side of his property, two streets up from Judy Rebecca. He also didn’t appreciate the lack of cleanup after the pipeline was installed. Zak made his concerns known to Enstar and was assured cleanup would occur in the fall. The work has not yet been done. Last week, while walking along Rene Court, Zak made a new discovery: sloughing in the clearcut area at the base of his property.
“From Enstar’s perspective, it would be a stretch to link any sort of Enstar construction-related activities to personal or private property damage,” John Sims, manager of Enstar’s corporate communications and customer service, told the Homer News. “There’s definitely some damage that’s occurred at that location, but not caused by Enstar construction work. Enstar’s perspective is we did what the city told us to.”
Enstar’s obligation is to stay within the right of way determined by the city, according to Sims. Enstar’s contractors survey the area and ensure construction is handled within the right of way.
“That’s really Enstar’s obligation, to make sure we stay within that right of way,” said Sims.
“As long as we do that, that’s the end of our obligation.”
For now, the city is monitoring the Judy Rebecca situation, Wrede told the Homer News.
“I really feel bad for those folks. They have some real problems up there,” he said. “But I don’t know how to help them. It’s not like I can go spend taxpayers’ dollars on something like that unless it’s really, really shown that, you know, it’s somebody’s fault.”
McCarthy believes, “anyone that is digging in the dirt in the Homer area should be paying due diligence to what impact that might have with water movement. … In some cases it’s not possible to correct afterwards. Or, if it’s possible, it’s extremely expensive.”
That cost comes in many forms.
“We just can’t believe the city of Homer allowed this to happen nor have they responded to our letters or requests for assistance, only indicating it was being forwarded to Enstar,” said VanZant
“Feeling “grievous in her spirit,” Denton said, “We’re just trying to get acknowledgement from somewhere, but they’ve pretty much closed the doors.”