Everett homeowners seek damages for mudslide

EVERETT — Jay Himmelman and his neighbors feel as though the city has backed them up to the edge of a cliff that’s literally crumbling beneath them.

They’re threatening to sue Everett over a landslide that’s been endangering their homes for about three years.

Starting in September, eight homeowners from south Everett’s Valley View neighborhood began filing tort claims. They’re asking for $133,000 to $2.3 million each in compensation. They blame a city drainage project on a nearby cul-de-sac as the cause of their troubles, something Everett officials deny.

“We’d like to settle this, but not in court,” Himmelman told the City Council earlier this month.

The middle-class neighborhood east of I-5 was mostly built up in the 1970s and 1980s.

The shifting ground first became obvious to current homeowners of Panaview Boulevard and Burl Place in December 2010 and January 2011. Early clues appeared in the form of driveway cracks and listing trees. Soon, people watched fissures widen in their back yards.

By March 2011, one house had begun its slow tumble down the hillside that affords a gorgeous view of the Snohomish Valley.

To date, the city has red-tagged three homes, deeming them unsafe to enter, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said.

One of them is John Vicente’s former split-level on Burl Place. It’s the house that’s already fallen off its foundation, below street level. A stairway now leads to a phantom entryway, where the front door used to be.

“As a result of the failing slope, I was forced to evacuate my home,” Vicente wrote in his claim, the one for $2.3 million. “Witnessing the failure occur, having to pack my things, evacuate the house and subsequently deal with my mortgage … have all resulted in excessive stress, anxiety and emotional distress. To this day, I am still dealing with the bank.”

The Snohomish County Assessor valued the home at $307,100 in 2010 but slashed the amount to just $12,000 by 2013. Demolition costs likely would far exceed that value.

The claims fault a 2004 city drainage-improvement project for causing a deep-seated landslide.

The city project was designed to increase the amount of water flowing downhill, so it wouldn’t pool up around the houses down the street from those on the eroding hillside.

“You did a great job of stopping the flooding,” Himmelman told the City Council earlier this month. “You did horribly on anything below us.”

The claims contend that the steep, 36-inch drainage pipe the city installed led to more intense flows of water into the creek below them.

“The erosion is just obvious,” Himmelman said, during a recent backyard tour.

They’ve dubbed the waterway “Armageddon Creek.” A mere trickle during dry spells, it produces a powerful spray during heavy rains.

Videos Himmelman posted online after September rainstorms show the pipe blasting water more than 40 feet from the pipe’s mouth.

Himmelman, a systems engineer, has tried to calculate the flow of water and the resulting erosion. He’s pored over city documents about the drainage work. He believes an environmental checklist shows where the design went off track.

The checklists are used to determine whether additional investigation is necessary before work begins on public works projects. The public works official who filled out the form in August 2004 answered “no” to a question about whether there were visible signs of unstable soils in the area. The form also states there were no year-round or seasonal streams in the immediate area, apparently missing “Armageddon Creek.”

By answering the questions in the negative, the city avoided triggering requirements to perform more extensive studies, which would have taken additional time and money, Himmelman said.

“They took a risk,” he said. “They cut a corner.”

Everett officials have offered scripted responses, of late, given the neighbors’ threats to sue.

City attorney Jim Iles and others have made it clear they will argue the drainage project is not to blame. They say the slope in question was unstable years before the drainage improvements in 2004.

“City staff will continue to review information as it becomes available,” a prepared response reads. “But information gathered so far does not point to fault by the City.”

The city says the landslide was caused by a combination of fill dirt on the properties, natural topography, groundwater movement through the soil and prolonged winter rains, starting three years ago.

Himmelman and his neighbors continue to press their case.

“This thing kind of engulfs you and depresses you,” he said. “I’m now sitting on a home that’s worth zero that I owe $170,000 on.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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