City considering changes to geo-tech policy; adopts design standards and service extension manuals

The city is considering changes to the existing policies regarding geo-technical analysis for residential construction.

The geo-tech analysis is required due to the fatty clay, or expansive clay, soils in many areas of the city that left unmitigated can have damaging effects on any structure, such as swelling and/or uneven floors; inoperable doors and windows; cracked foundation walls and slabs; and cracked sheetrock among other issues.

Those repairs can cost tens of thousands and in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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In 2008, in response to numerous complaints and lawsuits, the city implemented a policy requiring geo-technical analysis, including foundation design recommendations, in order to obtain permits to build new residential dwellings within the city limits.

The policy set design standards that limit differential movement to a one-inch maximum for new residential and commercial construction, as well as some additions and extensive repairs/replacements.

Typically the commercial projects include on-site, third party inspection, monitoring and reports at specific milestones during construction under the International Building Code.

On-site, third party inspection and monitoring is not currently required on residential projects, Craig Raymond, city planning director, told City Commissioners during their May 19 work session.

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The city policy and a determination from the Montana Supreme Court has largely shielded the city from continued litigation, but that has not protected engineers and contractors. That continued risk has caused local engineers to largely stop performing geo-technical evaluations and reports for residential projects unless under specific contracted terms, Raymond told commissioners.

Raymond said there are some engineers in other Montana cities willing to perform the analysis, but they have backlogs of about eight months, which has a negative impact on residential development in the city.

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In August, Raymond and City Manager Greg Doyon sent memos to City Commissioners explaining the issues and possible options. In both documents, Raymond and Doyon asked commissioners to consider the options and recommended discussion.

Commissioners didn’t give specific feedback, staffers said.

The work session on geo-technical issues was scheduled for mid-March but was pushed due to COVID-19.

Raymond told commissioners that the severity of the soil issues is not consistent across the city and can differ on neighboring lots.

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Staff is recommending that the city require a geologic hazards plan and report and to require special inspection progress and final reports to ensure follow through and verify that the engineer’s mitigation recommendations are implemented.

The approximate cost increase is $1,500 to $7,500 per single family dwelling depending on the structure and site conditions, according to city staff.

The other option, Raymond said, is to essentially provide a buyer beware notice and not require any geo-technical analysis to obtain permits from the city.

Raymond said that option is not recommended knowing about the problems with the expansive soils.

“We feel it’s a recipe for disaster,” Raymond said of not requiring geo-tech analysis.

The Home Builders Association of Great Falls is meeting with members and will submit questions and concerns to city planning and the commission, said Katie Hanning.

“Our mission is to advocate to keep housing affordable and these new requirements could be problematic. In short, the HBAGF is studying the ordinance and has not decided to support or object to this proposal,” Hanning said.

Mayor Bob Kelly said he would be curious to hear public discussion about the proposal.

Commissioner May Moe said, “I was kind of horrified by the second option.”

She said it’s important that the city provide some protections since purchasing a home is a big investment and that home buyers need the assurance of a disinterested party, which in this case is the city.

Moe said she believed the city was going in the right direction with adjusting the policy.

Once staff has a full draft of their recommended policy it will go back before the City Commission for consideration, including public hearings.

During the regular City Commission meeting on May 19, commissioners approved the extension of services plan and the standards for design and construction manual.

There was no public comment on the extension of services plan. Raymond said over the years the city has had policies on extending city services, but it wasn’t in code and developers have sometimes challenged the policies, so staff wanted the commission to endorse the plan.

Raymond said staff had posted the draft document posted to the city website and actively solicited feedback from the development community. He said staff will likely make periodic adjustments in the future to account for changing technology and building conditions.

Shyla Patera, an independent living specialist with North Central Independent Living Services, submitted an email in support of the standards for design and construction manual and encouraged the city to continue considering and improving accessibility.

Commissioner Rick Tryon congratulated staff on the documents.

“You guys really stepped forward” to address the issues and have “done an outstanding job on this.”

He said developers need predictability and certainty.