Cash settlement won’t cover soil settlement costs for Ironbridge homeowners
Seven years of litigation later and the owners of sinking homes with walls splitting open in Ironbridge have finally won some relief. But for many of the homeowners, the court-ordered awards fell far short of a victory.
The plaintiffs were 18 homeowners who prevailed in both an arbitration early this year against the builder and a July jury trial against the bankrupt LB Rose Ranch, the developer.
Soil collapse, or “settlement,” under the homes has been so bad in some places that three homes were condemned. Others live in sinking houses with no way to tell how bad they will get.
These homes were built upon hydrocompactive soils, meaning the soils under the houses compress when they get wet.
Usually these soils are rich with gypsum salts, which dissolve in water. And the soil is prone to have gaps throughout, making it more susceptible to collapse when the salts, which act as a fragile binding agent, dissolve.
The basic flaw at Ironbridge, a golf course community developed in the early 2000s and owned by a holding company of the collapsed Lehman Brothers, was that the developer expected being able to keep the soil dry as a method for mitigating the hazards, but that’s not a very realistic solution, said Bob Pattillo, a structural engineer who worked for the plaintiffs during litigation.
Under normal conditions the area might only get an inch of rain per storm, which would spread across the surface and not penetrate very deeply into the soil. Keeping the area dry is doable under those conditions, he said.
LIKE A LOADED GUN
But adding more and more roads, driveways and houses concentrated the rainwater into the few places it can soak into the ground, making it more likely to sink deeper and less likely to evaporate, he said.
Add to that the potential for underground water, sewer or irrigation line breaks that can’t be seen.
The soil conditions are like a loaded gun, and the concentration of water is what triggers its collapse, said Pattillo.
Collapsible soils and the resulting structural damage is very common in the Roaring Fork Valley and other arid regions of western Colorado, he said.
In the end the Ironbridge homeowners won both the arbitration and trial. But contrary to reports that combined the awards from the arbitration and trial, the plaintiffs will receive only the $9.4 million awarded in the arbitration, said Rick Moore, a homeowner in the lawsuit.
About half of that is going to attorney fees and other costs, he said. The amount that each homeowner received varied, as did the level of damage.
And the homeowners’ attorneys are still battling it out to cover more costs incurred through the litigation.
“People think that because we won the lawsuit it was an overall victory for us,” said Sam Mosher. Full repair of her home would cost nearly the same as the house itself, but the money she received through litigation is only half of what is needed.
To provide a repair with about a 90 percent chance of the house never moving again would be around $400,000, said Pattillo.
The homeowners can opt for a cheaper repair, which they could afford with the arbitration money, but it isn’t a sure thing, said Mosher.
Pattillo said he’s seen six houses that have suffered continued movement even after repairs were made.
Mosher’s home in Ironbridge is filled with cracks crawling up the living room walls, stretching down the hallways, split across the wall just above her headboard.
Pieces of blue tape to mark each crack in the walls polka dot the interior of her home.
Cracks stem from the corners of frames around windows and doors that will no longer open and shut properly.
Mosher even looked to salvage companies that would take the house as is, but one salvage company would only pay around $69,000 for what was a $500,000 home.
“I’m in the hole for hundred of thousands of dollars, and I can’t fix my house,” she said.
The same is true for most of the other plaintiffs as well, said Lisa and David Ice, who were also in the lawsuit.
Drywall tape in the corner of their garage ceiling has shredded as the walls have sunk. More cracks stretch from the corners of windows and doors. The tiles on their bathroom floor and shower are splitting and the sinks are separating from the wall.
The biggest movement of any house Pattillo’s company measured was 15 inches.
Beyond cracks in walls and trouble shutting doors and windows, the movements can and have caused serious problems by breaking water or gas lines.
The legal process was drawn out and painful, making it hard to function in everyday life, said Mosher.
Coming home after a long day’s work and having to look at the cracks in the walls, or maybe how much they’d grown, is disheartening, said Lisa Ice.
The Ices said their housing issues caused great stress on their marriage, which was only one year old at the time.
Jim Vidakovich, another plaintiff with damage to his Ironbridge home, said the litigation was like being “on an island by ourselves without any help.”
The homeowners still have tough decisions to make.
Should they repair the damage or cut their losses and sell their homes to a salvage company? How much should they spend on repairs? Should they make repairs and sell the home or stay and gamble on how much further soils may shift?
The Ices say their options are nil, and they’re forced to move out of the area. They’ll repair the house with the money they have and sell it, but the lower price it will bring means they’ll have to look outside the Roaring Fork Valley for another home.
“I’m 57. I don’t want to take out a big mortgage,” said Lisa Ice. She has lived in the area for 40 years, and her husband, David, grew up here.
Rick Moore’s home in Ironbridge was supposed to be a big part of his retirement. He said his home was appraised in 2008 for $650,000. After the lawsuit was filed, he said, the home was appraised again for $145,000.
“So my retirement essentially just shrunk by $500,000.”
But Moore is holding out hope. “Personally, I want to fix the house up, live here and play golf.”
“Now it’s about moving forward,” said Vidakovich, “and at the same time making sure no one else gets in the same fix we did.”
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