For many years, some in the Salt Lake area have taken issue with the increasing penchant by developers to build homes on the eastern benches and hillsides of the Salt Lake Valley, a practice encouraged by tax and fee-hungry public officials. One area where such development has virtually run amok is in Draper.
And on the night of June 17th, 2009, after a particularly heavy rainstorm, the chickens came home to roost. With no vegetation to restrain the soil after the disastrous August 2008 Corner Canyon wildfire, mud flowed down into a subdivision and engulfed at least three homes in the area of 12400 South into Pioneer Road, specifically on Bear Ridge Cove, which directly abuts the canyon. One of the homes is considered a possible total loss. Two Deseret News stories published HERE and HERE; a KSTU story with video HERE, and a KSL story HERE. KSL news video embedded below; you can toggle between the news story and an aerial view:
Emergency service officials were aware of the threat and were monitoring the situation. Draper city activated its emergency operations plan and made reverse 911 calls to residents east of 2000 East and from Pioneer Road to Corner Canyon to ensure residents were aware of the threat. But there are simply too many variables to predict precisely in advance what will trigger a slide; Capt. Clint Smith of the Unified Fire Authority said, "We have definitely been watching this area. We know we've had immense amounts of rainfall in the past couple of weeks. The hardest part is trying to predict where and when." The Salt Lake Valley has experienced rain, heavy at times, on nearly half the number of days during June so far, significantly above average.
The problem with this housing development is that it's too close to the mountains. So long as the natural vegetation cover is preserved, with the interlocking system of roots to hold the soil in place after heavy rain, the threat of mudslides is relatively small. Remove that vegetation as a result of a wildfire, and the protection is gone. Thus, the margin of error is simply too narrow to allow residential development in the area in the first place. Looking at the map, you can see that no development should have been permitted east of 2000 East up to the southern boundary of Hidden Valley Country Club.
Disturbingly, some class warfare is breaking out on the KSL discussion board. Some are suggesting that because the residents of this neighborhood are rich and built trophy homes in the area in order to buy their way out of the growing diversity of the lower valley, that somehow they "deserve" what happened to them. Balderdash! They bought homes up there because it was legal, and because market conditions and their labor enabled them to acquire the means to afford such a residence. Since when is honest prosperity a crime? In addition, several of the affected residents had already taken precautions, even building retaining walls in their yards. But in one case, the mudflow simply overwhelmed the retaining wall.
The real problem was caused by greedy public officials who permitted developers to build in vulnerable areas in order to satiate the public sector's endlessly escalating demand for more taxes and fees. Because trophy homes generate the biggest fees and the highest property taxes, developers were encouraged to shoot for the moon. But much of the resultant revenue is not directed towards the public good, but instead towards pie-in-the-sky feelgood projects (note this previous post as an example) and feathering the nests of already-overpaid and overbenefitted public sector workers. It was just in April 2008 that the nearby city of Sandy came under fire for dishing out bonuses to six-figure-salaried executives.
It is obvious that development up the benches and hillsides of the Salt Lake Valley must be more closely scrutinized, and stopped whenever necessary. Public officials who continue to allow developers carte blanche to mindlessly carve up the entire valley must be held accountable and replaced.