Subdivision seeks help for problems

       Imagine buying a home in an older hillside subdivision, only to find that the building appears to be settling, and uncontrolled stormwater may be seeping under your foundations.
       Then you realize you are not alone. Your 21 neighbors have similar issues. Unfortunately, the problems are mostly on private property and the homeowners' association that should have formed when the subdivision went in 20-odd years ago never did.
       What to do?
       That's the question residents have been asking themselves in the Mesa Terrace (originally Panorama Estates Filing 3&4) neighborhood, located on Superior Street north of Uintah Street.
       They're willing to do what they can, but with expensive engineering studies probably needed before repair costs can even be identified, “we need help getting back to good,” explained Stormie Wells, a six-year Mesa Terrace resident who has recently been pleading the neighbors' case to various local officials.
       Two of the officials - Westside elected people Sallie Clark and Scott Hente - are looking for ways to help. They are suggesting a combination of a local improvement district (which would tax owners of the 22 units for some of the costs) and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money. CDBG funds typically are used on public property, but Hente said the city has made an exception to that rule at least once before.
       Clark, a county commissioner and former president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), is also working with Mesa Terrace residents to set up a presentation to OWN, the city-recognized advocacy group for the Westside.
       At the time the Panorama Estates plan was approved, the city was more than a decade away from its current policy of requiring geologic studies on subdivisions. Hente, who owns a development company, had even considered building on a site just north on Superior Street five years ago, but “shied away,” he said, because of those kinds of issues.
       Steve Kuehster of City Engineering, refers to the area as “one of those older areas that got built before people realized the hazards there were.” Nowadays, a builder on that site would probably have been required to put in slope-stabilizing caissons, he said.
       A curiosity about the subdivision is that it consists of six buildings (five fourplexes and one duplex), yet, despite common walls, each is considered a single-family dwelling.
       Typical problems in the units, according to Wells, are cracked walls, stuck doors and doors not shutting. Outside, once-level wood retaining walls have taken odd angles and come apart. This includes the wall bearing the “Mesa Terrace” entry sign facing toward the Uintah-Superior intersection.
       Wells and the city believe the first step in fixing Mesa Terrace should be diagnosing what's gone wrong. That kind of engineering effort has yet to occur, although some information is known.
       A drainage plan for Panorama Estates 3&4, dated 1984, indicates that the developer was required to put in a rip-rapped drainage swale to catch and displace some of the water flowing down the hill. Over the years, the ditch has mostly filled in, and the rip-rap has long since been covered. There's also no way of knowing if the swale has been modified over the years, Hente noted.
       A puzzling aspect of the plan is its statement that the stormwater near Uintah Street should drain onto Superior, when it evidently would have to go uphill to do so. Further, as Wells pointed out in a recent tour of the property, the swale has no pipe to take the run-off down to Uintah (the plan did not call for one, either), so the water cuts along the sides of the very hill that the houses sit on.
       According to the plan, run-off from Mesa Vista Court at the top of the hill (an area subdivided as Panorama Estates 1&2) is to be collected by a city-maintained underground storm drain and piped to the gutter on Superior Street. Kuehster said the system recently “seems to be working.”
       In general, the development appears to have met all the city requirements at the time; as for the homeowner association that was never created, that would have been outside the city's purview.
       Stormie Wells and her neighbors are making no demands. “We want to work with the city,” she said, although she believes a case can be made that an entire subdivision with falling property values has certain city-wide impact.
       She did not realize the extent of the problems until she decided a year or so ago to build a deck. A city inspection process revealed problems with the other decks in her fourplex, and in the resulting dialog with her neighbors she learned that hers was not the only unit with structural shortcomings.
       The fallout has not been all negative. She's become better friends with her neighbors. “It's been great,” she said. “We've gotten to know each other and worked together on the problems.” She was delegated to lead the get-help effort, she said, “because I'm willing to make the phone calls.”
       Hente is hopeful things can work out for Mesa Terrace residents, even though, as he put it, “They're not the only neighborhood in the city with a problem.” However, he added, “I think the city will help them if they help themselves. To their credit, they're not looking for a handout. They're just saying to the city, 'Can you give us a hand?' and that's a reasonable request.”

Westside Pioneer article