Nevada City, CA, March 7, 2018 – Irene Masteller, Stephen Halpert and Richard Lau as Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit yesterday, March 6, 2018 against the County of Nevada and the County Sanitation District. They are seeking damages from the County and District for being forced out of their homes by the February 2017 landslide on County-owned property which spread uphill to their properties and damaged their homes. The Plaintiffs are also seeking to have the Court order the agencies to stabilize the slopes so as to prevent further damage to their homes and 33 other Cascade Shores homes that are threatened.
The suit alleges that the County was aware of the potential landslide danger on their property but did not warn nearby residents nor take any action to reduce the danger. The County already is dealing with a similar landslide that occurred in 2005. That landslide seriously damaged the County’s Cascade Shore waste treatment plant and resulted in major fines from the State that are ongoing. The County purchased this additional land, which is only a few hundred yards from the site of the 2005 landslide to build a new community leach field system. The system is intended to replace the failing wastewater treatment plant. Plaintiffs believe that the County downplayed the landslide risk on this new property in order to muffle any concern that could prevent the County from getting funding from the State for the project.
On February 18, 2017, the landslide struck. It originated on the County property and spread up into the adjoining Cascade Shores subdivision. The County ordered immediate evacuation of 10 homes in Cascades Shores on Mountain View Drive and Pasquale Road. The County has not taken any responsibility for the landslide and is requiring all affected property owners to repair their damage (none of which is covered by any insurance) and obtain expensive geotechnical reports. One year later Irene Masteller and her neighbors, Michael and Edna Saigh are still unable to return to their homes. The Lau/Halperts have only been allowed back in on a provisional basis after making required repairs. They still have the burden of proving to the County that their parcel is safe.
Irene Masteller is a 72 year-old grandmother, living on Social Security, who is the primary caregiver for her gravely disabled grandson. She cannot afford to do the major work required by the County to return to her home. She has been dependent on friends for temporary housing and for a while her grandson had to live at Hospitality House or be on the streets. Masteller has found it difficult to get through each day since the landslide occurred. “I’m 72 years old and caring for my special needs grandson. Our lives have been devastated by the landslide and being forced out of our house by the County. We have no insurance to help us because landslides are not covered. No FEMA money because the County did not declare it as a disaster, and the County itself has refused to provide any assistance. I am hoping that this lawsuit will wake the County up to its responsibilities to my family and the other homeowners in Cascade Shores.”
In the course of gathering information related to the landslide, the Plaintiffs discovered evidence that the County still considers the area at risk for further landslides. They obtained a map originating from the Nevada County Building Department that identifies 33 homes in Cascade Shores near the 2017 landslide site that the County is now requiring obtain a geotechnical engineering assessment before permits will be granted for specified construction work. The County has not publicized or explained this action and as of the date of this press release, it does not appear the County has communicated this new geotechnical assessment requirement to most affected homeowners. This “secret moratorium” suggests that the County recognizes the continuing risk of further landslides in the area of the 2005 and 2017 slides. It is not publicizing it apparently to avoid jeopardizing the County Leachfield Project moving forward on the site.
This is not the first time a landslide has occurred in this area. According to the multiple geotechnical reports commissioned by the County, the area itself was once the riverbed of the ancestral Yuba River and the upper soil levels are largely a compacted mixture of gravel and clay. The gravel also contained fine gold. That is why in the 1800’s the area was subject to extensive hydraulically mining. The mining stripped the topsoil, denuded the land and created very steep slopes. Coupled with the existing weak soils structure, this was a recipe for landslides. Yet the County in 1960s approved a large residential subdivision, Cascade Shores on the very edge of these fragile slopes all on septic systems. In the 1990s these septic systems began to fail and the County proceeded to put in pipelines and a small sewer plant to serve 86 houses with failing septic systems. Where did they put it? On the cheap hydraulically mined land just below the unstable slopes.
It should have been no surprise to the County when the slope above the plant failed in 2005 and a major landslide damaged their sewer plant. The County failed to react quickly to the damage and allowed untreated sewage to flow into Gas Canyon Creek for weeks. This came to the attention of the Regional Water Quality Board and they proceeded to levy heavy fines on the County.
The County repaired the damage, but the plant continued to violate Regional Board mandates. The County made a multi-million dollar claim to their insurance company Lexington Insurance. The County not only sought money to repair the plant but demanded sufficient money to move the plant to another site. The County’s geotechnical engineer H&K Engineering, issued a major report in 2006 where they confirmed the weak soils, “over-steepened slopes” and a history of multiple slides in the area. H&K concluded that there was a substantial risk of further slides and they recommended moving the plant to a less risky site. The County sued its insurance company and eventually settled for over $2 million, which included money to relocate and replace the plant. The County also obtained a State Water Fund grant for $2.2 million in December of 2016 to construct a community leachfield system to replace the sewer treatment plant.
In January 2015 the County completed the purchase of 40 acres of land adjoining the site of the 2005 landslide, for the purpose of investigating and constructing a leach field system to replace the sewer plant. The parcel purchased for the development contained the same steep hydraulically mined slopes as the previous property. To make matters worse, the parcel had recently been heavily logged, making it even more vulnerable to slides. Yet the County’s environmental documents for the project adopted in 2014 and 2015 make no mention of the known geologic risk in the area.
As Halpert commented: “The site of the proposed County leach field is less than 1000 feet downhill from our home and other homes damaged by the 2017 landslide. There are large tension cracks in the hillside from the landslide. We are deeply concerned that the ground disturbance from excavation and construction of two 11,000 gallon leachate tanks and insertion of large amounts of sewer water into the subsoil downhill from us will increase the risk of landslides. We want a better sewage disposal system for our community, but we do not wish other homeowners to experience what we have gone through. The County needs to openly acknowledge the landslide risk and make the safety of Cascade Shores homeowners a priority. It needs to take responsibility to fix the problem instead of making it worse.”