Families seeking help; road slide endangering homes

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February 07 2021 06:00 pm

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WOWK) – Van Ford, Carlos Leep and other neighbors say they are ready for their nightmare to be over. Leep and his neighbors claim the City of Huntington is responsible for the maintainence of the road, Belmont Drive, behind their homes.

“There’s no way all this can be fixed,” Ford said. 

Ford and Leep claim unrepaired slips on Belmont Drive eight years ago caused gushing water forcing the hillside to crumble. It’s pushing into their homes and possibly destroying them. 

“This right here is exactly the same spot in 2011 that the mayor and the city councilmen that were all standing here looking over the hill where it slipped thumb-puzzled trying to figure out how to fix it or what they were going to do with it,” Leep said. 

Leep and Ford hope the City will do the right thing and they want the city to buy them out. Belmont Drive has been a mess for almost 30 years. The City botched a drainage and construction project here. A property owner, Juanita Byrd, even won $13,000 in damages because that construction caused a landslide destroying her property. An engineering report even warned of the future landslide risk. 

The engineering report, by Ackenheil and Associates, is from November 1991. It was used in the lawsuit and states “prior to the landslide activity that occurred during Spring 1991 the City of Huntington performed grading and drainage work on Belmont Drive upslope” of a property listed as 2038 Johnstown Road during Summer/Fall 1990.” 

The engineering report was to present an opinion as to the cause of damage done to the property at 2038 Johnstown Road, adjacent to Belmont Drive. In the report, the cost associated with the property does not include reconstruction costs to the hillside or “construction of a retaining wall along Belmont Drive” nor “the construction of surface and subsurface drainage features.” 

 “When I started opening it and reading it and reading the report, the engineering report predicted this in 1991 what was going to happen, I mean, it’s crazy,” Leep said. 

The City of Huntington disagrees with all of this. They claim zero responsibility. They insist Belmont Drive has never caused drainage problems or excess water coming down the hill. And they point out the area of the slide is nowhere near these people’s property, despite the fact the slips are right up the hill from the homes.

Leep, Van, and other neighbors hoped to get an attorney, and reached out to David Karr Jr., in Charleston. 

City Attorney Scott Damron wrote at a letter to Karr, Jr., dated May 22, 2018: 

“The city is fully prepared to defend against all claims that have been asserted by these property owners. Any drainage issues that these residents have is wholly unrelated to anything that the city of Huntington has done in the past.

The actual history of Belmont Drive is that there was a slide on the roadway about eight years ago. It was less expensive to purchase the only resident on the road then it was to repair the slide. The owner was willing, so the city purchased  the residence. No work whatsoever was performed on the roadway that would alter any drainage. Further, the area of the slide is nowhere near your clients properties. Belmont Drive is a one lane gravel road that has existed for many years. It’s existence has never been the cause of any drainage in excess of the water that comes off of the hill. There are no city facilities that affect drainage, either positively or negatively, that affect your clients property.

Your clients live at the bottom of a hill, and water drains naturally down the hill to their property. The city has no responsibility for any of the claims that they have made. Therefore, we are denying your claim and look forward to establishing our position in the litigation of this matter.” 

Karr, Jr., said based on the upfront costs of the case he would not represent them. In a letter to Leep and three other families, including Van Ford, Karr, Jr., stated the decision to withdraw representation “should not be interpreted as a decision based on the merits of the case.” 

As a result of Leep and his neighbors pursuing litigation, the City of Huntington said they cannot comment beyond the following: 

“The City of Huntington contends there is no actual evidence that suggests any action of the City has contributed to the cause of the slope failure above Mr. Leep‘s residence. The Huntington Water Quality Board has had a preliminary engineering report prepared by Potesta Engineers and Environmental Consultants. It is this firm’s opinion that the closure of Belmont Drive by the city approximately seven years ago has not contributed in anyway to causing the slope failures the report attribute the causative agents of the slope failures to the nature of the soil and steepness of the slope.” 

WOWK TV asked the City for a copy of the engineering report by Potesta, but was denied. 

According to city council minutes from June 27, 2011, the city purchased a home owned by Ruby Lawhorn that was only accessible by Belmont Drive. In those minutes, Public Works Director David Hagley gave council members information, including briefing notes and an engineering report, stating “landslide(s)” blocked access to the home. The minutes also stated, “there are other landslides that could affect the area in the future.”

In the briefing notes titled “Road Slide Brief at Belmont Drive,” it states there were three slides, the first being reported in April of 2011. Two more slides happened after that. The first slide was “90 feet long and runs downhill about 40 feet to 50 feet,” cutting off access to the home at the end, according to the briefing notes. The second slide was reported to be “20 feet long and runs downhill approximately 30 feet and is about 10 yards from Giger Street.” The notes list the third slide as “about 20 feet long and coming down onto Belmont Drive this is about 40 yards uphill from Giger Street.” It’s also noted there was “slide on Giger Street, near the intersection with Belmont Drive, which has shut down a section of Giger Street.” 

According to media reports the landslides began after a period of heavy rain in April of 2011. The city closed Belmont Drive after the slides were reported. Ruby Lawhorn lived in the home at the time was relocated to a hotel paid for by the city. According to briefing notes, the cost for hotel expenses were $1,000 per week. 

During the city council meeting, options were presented including repairing all the slides and making the road accessible or purchasing the home at the end of Belmont Drive. Estimates to fix the initial slide it would cost the city between $75,000 and $100,000. 

According to the briefing notes, the latter of the two options was recommended to councilmembers stating by buying the home at the end of the Belmont Road for $59,000 “more time is available to develop a plan for the slides to be repaired while not incurring additional costs from hotel accommodations” from the homeowner. 

Council approved the purchase of the home in a 5-4 vote. According to the minutes, Councilman Nate Randolf stated he “felt that the City should not have taken over this road. This is a good example showing that such actions should be very carefully considered. 

The Herald-Dispatch reported June 28, 2011, then Huntington City Attorney Scott McClure is quoted as saying this incident is unique. The newspaper report states McClure said, “I can’t predict what a judge will say in the future, but the circumstances of this particular incident are not likely to occur again.” 

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