City considering change to geo-tech analysis requirement

City staff are recommending changes to the city’s policy requiring geo-technical analysis in the hopes of removing some barriers to residential development in Great Falls.

During their June 16 meeting, the City Commission will be asked to consider the change on first reading and set a public hearing for July 7.

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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.

In May, City Planning Director Craig Raymond walked commissioners through the policy and recommended changes during a work session.

Even with the testing policies, the development community continued experiencing litigation regarding foundations and other issues related to fatty or expansive clays, or other geo-technical issues in soils throughout the city.

Some of the litigation involved cases where geo-technical analysis and reporting were provided but the recommendations weren’t following throughout construction, according to city staff, and as a result local engineering firms have indicated to staff that they aren’t willing to perform residential geo-tech sampling, analysis and foundation design recommendations.

They’ve indicated that “the costs of litigation outweigh the benefit of providing such reports,” according to the city staff report.

Two out of town engineering firms are willing to perform the analysis but each had an eight month backlog, according to city staff.

“Obviously, this has had an extraordinarily chilling effect on residential development within the city limits. In part because of these factors, the city is now seeing a significant reduction in residential single family dwelling permit applications and are receiving feedback that this condition is likely to continue or worsen unless alternative solutions can be found,” according to the city staff report.

Staff is recommending that commissioners adopt a new ordinance, which would, in part:

  • Provide special disclosures of Great Falls’ unique soils conditions and assumption of owner responsibility;
  • Require geologic hazards plans and reports from qualified experts to identify geologic conditions on the property and any potential hazards to or from adjacent properties, determine acceptable level of risk, and identify mitigation measures if any are necessary;
  • Require on-site inspections from qualified experts; and
  • Increase residential design and permitting costs by an estimated $1,500 to $7,500 per single family dwelling depending on structure built and site conditions.