Through the Cracks
Damage to Westside residents' homes sparks a dispute with a hospital
Robyn Mintz came home from work to an alarming sight: a 2-inch high ridge along the length of her kitchen tile, like a small-scale seismological event. It looked as though the foundation had shifted, buckling the floor along a retaining wall. Now, after Mintz and her fiancé, John Short, have spent a few months walking on the floor, it's started to shatter.
Damage to their recently purchased nine-year-old Westside home snuck up on them over the last year and a half. Doors stopped shutting properly. Stucco crumbled. Windows cracked. Then, one day in January, the floor suddenly buckled. "Stuff just happened very slowly," Mintz says. "It just crept up on us, and we didn't really notice the extent of the damage."
Short bought the home, situated in a neighborhood near Paradise Hills, in late August 2004. He had an inspection done at the time. About two months after the purchase, in November 2004, Lovelace Westside Hospital began building a 50,000-square-foot, two-story medical office building and accompanying parking lot at 10501 Golf Course Road, within 60 feet of their home. A lot of prep work had to be done to build the large structures, including ground compaction and the filling in of a large natural arroyo, which later became the parking lot. Mintz, Short and other neighbors believe vibrations from this work damaged their homes.
Lovelace CEO Clay Holderman calls it the elephant in the living room. Neighbors and the hospital have gone back and forth on a number of issues. Residents don't like the solid-waste dumpsters too close to their homes. Increased traffic could cause trouble in the area. A wall was supposed to go up on the north side of the Lovelace property to ensure privacy for neighboring homes and hasn't yet been built. Drainage that used to go to the arroyo may not have been adequately accounted for. It's a long list, and it goes on. But the big, fat, lingering question: Who is responsible for the damage to property?
Lovelace points the finger at the contractor, Bradbury Stamm Construction, who in turn points it at subcontractor Romero Truck and Tractor.
"We trusted the process," Mintz says. "Things have fallen through the cracks."
Before the recent boom in development, the Westside was mostly sand dunes. That sand is tricky to build on, says Russell Romero, owner of Romero Truck and Tractor. He's put together some houses on the Westside. In addition to the sand, you have to watch out for the clay that's under the sand, he says, which expands and contracts depending on the weather, causing damage to foundations. Bud Rigel, the man who built and designed Mintz and Short's home, says he'd bet his life it was the hospital's construction project that was behind the damage, not natural settlement.
Settlement, he says, happens within the first two years of a house's life, not nine years down the line. It was no fly-by-night project, either, he says. He took his time designing and building that house. Rigel has followed the life of the house closely and went to examine the new cracks and fissures in person on Saturday, June 17. "I'm an old man, and I don't know anything--all I know is how to build a good house. And that construction on that hospital had an impact on that house."
The city requires the ground to be 95 percent compacted before structures are built. But, as City Councilor Michael Cadigan, who presides over the northern Westside, points out, it's the responsibility of the contractor to establish that the ground meets the requirement. He says the city doesn't test to make sure that specific requirement has been met during periodic inspections of construction projects. Additionally, Cadigan estimates that soil tests can cost a couple thousand dollars.
To build the parking lot over the arroyo, Romero's company laid down layers of dirt, compacting every few inches. Compaction can be done different ways depending on the area, but Romero's company accomplished it by wetting the dirt and using a roller to press it down, he says.
After the first complaint from a neighbor at the start of construction in November, the company found an alternate roller that was smaller and didn't use vibrations to compact the earth, according to Romero. But at the most recent meeting to air grievances, held at Lovelace on Tuesday, June 13, residents near the construction complained of constant pounding from sunup to mid-afternoon. "When you live in an area that is [made of] sand, these kinds of things have to be taken into consideration," says Mary Stadler, who lives on a piece of property 12 feet from major hospital construction. "Testing should have been done to see what the vibration and compacting would do to homes within 100 feet of the property line."
Cadigan also works as a lawyer and has represented homeowners on the Westside and in Rio Rancho on a number of suits relating to home construction. He says the only time the city gets involved in pre-construction investigation is when there's going to be blasting.
Stadler and Mintz feel the city should bear some responsibility in ensuring houses won't be injured by work at nearby projects, given that the city is ultimately the entity that OKs all building plans. "I think everybody's responsible," Mintz said at the meeting. The city let it happen, she says, "and there are no protective measures for the citizens."
Yet Cadigan says that's just the system we live in. "Instead of having fist fights, we have courts to take our disputes to, and that's a private civil matter between the homeowners and the contractor who built it, and that's why they have insurance." Mintz spoke to 11 lawyers. The claims aren't big enough for them to work on contingency, she says, which means she and Short would be spending more money on a suit than they would get in return. Additionally, the damage isn't covered by homeowners' insurance, she says.
Mintz moved to Albuquerque from Boston and has been somewhat stunned by the city's lack of involvement. "I just find it so amazing that there are no laws requiring a commercial developer, if they're building at a certain distance, to be responsible for assessing the vulnerability of nearby homes." Cadigan insists that citizens have to "avail themselves of the law that exists."
Neighbors say they fondly remember the arroyo that was really more like a lake. It was big, and it shouldered a lot of responsibility for runoff during a hard rain. But when the arroyo was filled, an 18-inch pipe was installed near Stadler's home in its place. "The only place to run the drainage area is between their parking lot perimeter and my nonretaining block wall," she says. She doesn't think the wall will hold up during a good rain--the kind Albuquerque hasn't seen in a while. "Most of the site drains just fine," says Mark Wade, the principal architect behind the project. "One area doesn't drain per the civil engineer's design and per the city's requirements." But he adds that the problem will be remedied in short order.
Stadler is also concerned that the parking lot may have been built several feet higher than the city-approved plans call for, which would force water right up to her property line. Cadigan says he will send the zoning enforcement team out to Lovelace within the next couple weeks to ensure that construction conforms to the approved plans.
The Lovelace addition is operating on a temporary certificate of occupancy, required by the city for the use of a building, until issues such as the 6-foot privacy wall and drainage can be addressed. The temporary permit expires Aug. 18, and a permanent one cannot be issued until all requirements are met.
The hospital has plans for future development on its 19 acres, CEO Holderman says. "Our likely future growth will be towers on the front of the building with a parking lot behind the hospital adjacent to the medical building." But, he adds, Lovelace is interested in being a good neighbor and will continue discussions with nearby residents about construction. Given that one-third of the city's population lives west of the river, he adds, expansion of the Westside's only hospital is unavoidable.
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