The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Landslide repairs to begin this spring
STAFFORD: HOMES THREATENED BY SLOPE FAILURE
BY KATIE THISDELL
Dan and Michele O’Leary try to visit their North Stafford home once a week.
They used to be there every day, after moving into their dream home in the Austin Ridge subdivision in 2003.
Now they just check to be sure that it’s still standing.
For a while, they weren’t so sure that it would be.
Last fall, they worried that their home and one next door, owned by Ora Barnes, would fall into the 80-foot-deep hole where their backyards once were.
Six months have passed since the slope failed on Brush Everard Court, and work will start this spring to make the homes habitable again.
Last year’s trio of natural disasters—the August earthquake, followed by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee—are likely causes of what has been called a landslide.
“We were looking at these huge unknown questions,” Dan O’Leary said.
The slope failure began on Sept. 9, the day after 1.11 inches of rain fell in the area. It started with a crack in the ground between the two houses. Then it grew.
Soon, the backyards were gone and the hole was getting bigger and bigger. After pulling down the decks and patios, the slide stopped about 2 feet away from the houses’ foundations.
“Everyone believed that if something immediate wasn’t done, the houses would slide into the hill as well,” Dan O’Leary said.
Now two small meters are attached to the O’Learys’ driveway to measure any movement. An inclinometer between the homes has been monitoring the ground for months.
Movement has stopped, ending that pressing need for an immediate solution.
A geotechnical study by Froehling & Robertson Inc. states that the slopes had marginal stability before the land was developed.
“We believe that the slope was designed utilizing an insufficient factor of safety,” the Fredericksburg firm’s report says.
The $15,000 report that took eight weeks to complete will be used as repair plans progress. The slope should be reinforced structurally, the report recommends, since using fill dirt could lead to future failures.
The land had failed to stay put twice before. A retaining wall was constructed in 2005.
Both families have met with various attorneys to determine whether the developer or the county is liable for repairs.
“I’m not giving up on that,” Ora Barnes said.
The county staff is now working with the Fredericksburg-based firm ECS on the designs. They will finalize plans in the next week.
“If everyone agrees, then we can start work in either April or May,” county spokeswoman Cathy Vollbrecht said.
Preliminary plans focus on making the houses habitable again, though the backyards may not be as attractive as before.
The basic plan is that wire cages filled with rocks could provide a foundation for rebuilding the slope, with layers of dirt on top. This could allow the water that is found naturally on these properties to filter through the rocks, rather than eroding the soil.
The O’Learys hope that the repair would cost much less than the hundreds of thousands that they once feared. But estimates are not yet available.
“You’re talking about investing twice as much as your house on just dirt,” Dan O’Leary said.
At one time valued at close to $500,000, the houses now aren’t even listed on the latest county assessments. Each lot is assessed at $60,000.
“I wouldn’t give you 10 cents for it,” Dan O’Leary said.
To help with the slope repair costs, Ebenezer United Methodist Church has raised about $47,000 through its landslide relief fund.
Each family is also eligible for $30,000 through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. And last fall, the county released $62,000 in developer’s bonds from the Austin Ridge subdivision.
Vollbrecht said the county will make a push for more community aid once the construction plans are finalized.
“We know there are a lot of people out there that want to contribute or volunteer their resources,” Vollbrecht said.
Both families say they don’t expect to move back in, and they may rent the houses in the future.
“There’s always going to be a shadow or cloud over these two properties,” Dan O’Leary said. “I don’t think anybody could say anything to convince me otherwise. It is what it is.”
The O’Learys have purchased another home in Fredericksburg.
Ora Barnes and daughter Katrina have moved in with Ora’s son in Haymarket.
“I want to get back to my routine,” said Ora Barnes.
The two stopped by their home to clear out some more belongings. Most went into storage when the houses were condemned in September, but a few large pieces of furniture remain.
“It’s just kind of depressing,” Barnes said.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975