Letter to the Editor: If it’s not safe, it must be illegal

The Beth El Hebrew Congregation, which backs up to Karig Estates (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

To the editor:

I am neither a builder nor an architect, but it certainly does baffle me when a city and its government decide to build on land that is tainted and unsuited for construction. At the Jan. 20 city council public hearing the message was loud and clear — build because where there is space there is tax revenue and the planning and zoning will run interference for the council with 7-0 votes to set up the council 6-1 vote. Mayor Allison Silberberg voted no to build, which was a yes for the neighborhood.

A geological report by Tony Fleming, geologist for the city, cautioned against construction in an area saturated with marine clay and stated the area was unsuited for building. Likewise, Rod Simmons, the city’s resource manager, challenged the need to build due to the removal of the tree canopy, which would alter storm water passage and create issues with the neighbors downstream.

The issue was lost on a technicality that the staff of planning and zoning saw nothing illegal in building in marine clay, or near a stream or removing 60-plus trees.
The question that should have been asked was, “Is it safe to build on marine clay?” If as Fleming suggested it is not, then it would be unethical for builders to build under these conditions because if marine clay is not safe, it would be illegal to put residents in danger. So it may be an illegal case. Can the builder insure these homes against foundation issues? Yes, but only for two years — then what?

The issues with marine clay are well known: the soil is porous and unstable due to the fact that it shrinks and swells in response to moisture. It moves and expands foundations until there are landslides and cracks in foundations costing thousands of dollars to repair. A FOIA document revealed that 21 homes in the Seminary Hill area have performed waterproofing treatment to ward off flooding. Another woman spoke of a 28-foot-long crack in the foundation of her house requiring more than $100,000 to fix. Is this a mere coincidence? I think not. The change in the topography at the proposed site is extensive due to construction and will have further downstream effects for other residences
in Seminary Hill.

The issue here is the planning and zoning staff. During the Patrick Henry School project as the Latham neighbors lamented the loss of open space to a mammoth new school, the answer from the staff was,“Did you really think this open space would always be there?” For P and Z the best space is no space. We will build until there is no space. We build for
tax revenue. The question on the Kairg Estates project remains based upon risk. Would you build your house on marine clay soil? No, you would not. Is it illegal to build on marine clay
soil? Yes, if it places neighbors in danger.

With the knowledge of a city geologist and city resource manager saying no to the project would anyone feel comfortable buying any of these houses? What about insurance? Are these homes insurable sitting on marine clay, and at what cost? Planning and zoning
doesn’t care — it’s all about revenue which the city will do anything to pocket.

-Bill Goff, Alexandria