Perched above State Route 302 on the Key Peninsula side of the Purdy Spit, a house under construction for more than two years nears completion, illustrating the complexity of building on an environmentally sensitive site. Passers-by, who can see the home clearly from the highway, surely ask themselves questions. How does the house keep from slipping down to the road? When will it ever be safely completed and occupied?
When Yvonne Rose bought lots No. 2 and 3 in the Emerald Shores subdivision during a family visit from Ohio in January 2003, she hired a geotech engineer to begin a site study before returning home. Her brother referred her to Cedarland NW Homes, where he is a landscaper, and she contracted with the company to build her custom home.
Rose planned to retire from her Ohio phone company job and relocate to her new life on the Key Peninsula. Instead, after moving to Washington state, she rented a home on Fox Island and began navigating her way through Pierce County’s planning and land services, in an attempt to obtain the final occupancy permit that will finally bring her “home.” The building cost overruns have forced her back into the workforce.
According to the county, a two-story, three-bedroom residential building permit application was filed in August 2003 and issued in June 2004. An abbreviated geotech site design was submitted in December 2003 and approved in July 2004. Glen Coad, development engineering technical support supervisor, thought it “odd” that the building permit was issued before approval of the site development plan.
At the time of the geotech report, the Critical Areas Ordinance indicated sites with a grade of over 30 percent with at least a 10-foot height automatically became critical area designations, requiring further review. Coad says the county relies on the reporting geotech, but that “some are better than others.” Had the report indicated steep and/or unstable slopes, the county would have initiated a site investigation, he said. AML GeoTech of Olympia stated, “In our opinion no part of this property warrants being set aside and maintained as an undisturbed buffer,” also noting an on-site stand of alder.
The building permit issued, Cedarland NW began construction of the house in compliance with the septic design, showing the house in its present location on lot 2. The septic system was sited on the higher lot 3, where springs were deeper and soil types more amenable to a drainfield. The geotech report, unseen by Joe Cedarland, of Cedarland NW Homes, recommended the house be built on lot 3. According to Cedarland, his company’s contract with Rose states they are only responsible for information provided to them.
In clearing for the foundation, Cedarland left the alders for erosion control, not a county requirement. After the foundation was in, Cedarland was notified that the building permit had been granted erroneously; the first design for storm water drainage was not approved. Pierce County required a second drainage design (which Cedarland said the company subsequently supplied through its engineer at the company’s cost) and suspended the permit.
During the four-month suspension period, Rose hired a contractor to remove the alders, opening the view. Cedarland says they were not notified, nor was a tree-removal permit issued. “Once those trees were out, erosion worsened dramatically,” he says.
The county investigated, and suspended work on the site in March 2005. Coad says, “(The) house was built on a slightly different location, and (we) had to readdress erosion control; (the) complete drain/outfall system was not completed. This is one of those times that everything didn’t go smoothly.” He says the suspension was to keep the owner and builder focused on building a retaining wall to correct the situation.
“Pierce County permits are revocable if the status of a site changes,” Cedarland says, adding, “Our contract provided for no additional site work beyond the foundation.” They had a contract to build the house; landscaping was up to the owner. Their offer to construct the retaining wall was refused by Rose, who took out another loan and contracted with a Monroe company to do the installation.
In March 2005, Rose and Cedarland met with her lender; Rose was told construction would be complete by June. At the end of May, Rose’s construction loan time limit ended; the house was not done, and she is now paying quarterly extensions. She estimates cost overruns to be about 33 percent, not counting the $50,000 lien for unpaid labor and materials filed by Cedarland, after they were locked out of the house on June 15, 2005. “The house was not done and I wanted them out of there,” Rose says. “In the contract I said I’d do the landscaping… IBC says a 10-foot shelf (must remain) at back of the house. Builder says it’s landscaping.”
Last September, the county received an application for a 10-foot retaining wall. As of Jan. 20, the final building inspection has not been signed off and will remain in suspension until the retaining wall is approved. On Jan. 13, Larry Freemont, Pierce County land erosion control inspector, tacked a list of eight items to be completed at the house, one of which included resolution of plastic sheeting on the hillside. The county wants the ground seeded; Rose, now acting as her own general contractor, is concerned that uncovering the soil this early will erode it. She says there has been no movement on the hillside during the wet winter. After the final building inspection and occupancy permits are issued, hopefully by April or May 2006, she will compact and level the back (facing SR-302), build a deck, and seed to grass, pending county approval.
“There are many days I wish I’d never seen the lots. I came here to retire; instead I’m working three jobs,” says Rose. She wasn’t counting on all the extra geotech costs, installation of a fire hydrant (the house is just outside the 350-foot requirement to use the existing hydrant on 302), and “certainly not the retaining wall.”
Both Rose and Cedarland are in agreement that the house is built on a solid foundation. The footing wall is more than 10 feet below the surface; sitting on “undisturbed soil left in its natural state” (bearing soil).
Cedarland says, “Left to its own device, any soil on that steep a slope, unless there are trees or retaining walls installed, will erode. The water (just) continues to move faster…” The soil seen drifting/eroding away from the corners of the house, he says, is fill. During the design process, a structural engineer called for 5-foot-wide footings (standard county code calls for 24-inch footings). The wider the footings, the more stability; there is also more rebar in the foundation than in a standard house.
At a meeting last July, Rose, Cedarland, and their respective attorneys met. Cedarland offered to either buy the house back or complete it. Rose refused, “because they would take no responsibility for the outside.” Cedarland is ready to propose a settlement in which they are paid for monies outstanding (half of the subcontractors have yet to be paid) and are released of any liability on the site, at which time they will release the lien. The other option, he says, is to file a lawsuit for collection of funds due. “(Construction is) a very complicated process and Pierce County is a complicated county to work in. People do not understand the county is more difficult than it was five years ago,” he says. “They can stop or change the building process in midstream. It’s costly and time-consuming, but we just have to deal with it.”
Coincidentally, during their first meetings, Cedarland told Rose that hers would be the last house Cedarland NW Homes builds. As of six or so months back, Cedarland is out of the construction business, and has moved into lot development.