This is a disturbing tale of how City of Salem officials have allowed a subdivision developer to trample the rights of neighbors, while ignoring two women's requests to explain how repeated screw-ups keep happening.
The subdivision is Sabre Ridge Estates, off of Sunnyside Road in south Salem. The women are Lisa Basalto and her mother, Lynn. Lisa wrote to me several weeks ago, looking for someone to help with her extremely frustrating situation. Below I've shared her story, along with some related photos and videos.
Last Thursday I went to the Basalto home. I've shared some of the photos I took during my visit at appropriate places in her email message, along with two videos the Basaltos made of the flooding caused by poor construction practices and erosion control measures.
What Lisa and her family have gone through is infuriating. But what makes her experience even more disturbing is how it is echoed in a story in the current issue of Salem Weekly, "Repeated favoritism claimed for local developer." Here's an excerpt:
For more than a year, Easterly says, he has attempted to learn from the City of Salem the reasons behind the exceptions given Fry [developer of a subdivision in West Salem]. He describes meeting with frustration from officials who will neither concede nor explain the favoritism he had documented. “Efforts were made to answer my questions,” he says, “until such time that staff sensed my questions were challenging their ‘official’ view.
He says he’s felt ‘heard’ – “as well as avoided.”
“I’m an i-dotter and a t-crosser,” he told Salem Weekly. “I don’t mind if you want to change the rules. But if you don’t change the rules – you should play by them.”
Something sure seems to be amiss at City Hall -- especially, the Public Works Department headed up by Peter Fernandez.
I readily admit that I'm not a Fernandez fan (to put it mildly), having documented the favoritism and backroom dealmaking he engaged in with U.S. Bank President Ryan Allbritton during the 2013 State Street tree removal debacle. Since, I've heard credible reports that Fernandez meets regularly with Salem's largest developers to discuss how the City can help them achieve their money-making plans as smoothly as possible.
So when I heard about what the Basaltos has gone through, I thought "Sad, but not surprising; ordinary citizens regularly get screwed-over by City of Salem officials who care a lot more about pleasing the Powers That Be in this town than complying with governmental regulations and ethical norms."
Mayor Anna Peterson, Mayor-elect Chuck Bennett, City Manager Steve Powers, and Salem's eight city councilors need to start kicking some butt at City Hall, stopping the outrageous way Lisa has been treated by City officials, which I'm confident happens to many other ordinary citizens who don't get the white glove treatment extended to developers with lots of money and power.
Here's what Lisa told me in her first message. Hopefully her horrible experience won't go in vain. I've boldfaced passages that struck me as meriting special attention.
Hi Brian, I hope you don't mind me reaching out to you like this. I have enjoyed reading your blog, particularly about the issues of corruption in Salem's City Hall and Planning Commission, because it feels like one of the only places on the internet where my own frustrations are being reflected.
I moved to Salem about three years ago with my family. We live in a roughly 30-year-old home on Cinnamon Hill Drive in Southeast Salem, which backs up to a property on Sunnyside Road that is now being developed. At the time we bought the house, we were unaware that this property was going to be developed. Directly behind us was a large house on acreage, and adjacent to that property was a Christmas tree farm.
Alongside our property line was a private road/driveway which serviced both the house directly behind us and an older house, built in the 1920s, that has a working farm attached to it. Lining the driveway are 100-year-old white oak trees, zig-zagging our property with some trees inside our property line and some just outside it; and there used to be some beautiful fir and wild cherry trees as well (the “used-to-be” should give you an indication about how “fun” this story is going to be).
When we moved in, we didn't realize that, apparently, the owner of the house behind us and of the Christmas tree farm was planning on turning his property into a housing development, and had been entangled in a dispute with all our neighbors for years because of it. Since around 2007, our neighbors and the owners of the 1920s house had been fighting to try to save the oak trees and a number of other magnificent trees on the property. Though they managed to save some, hundreds of trees have been cut down.
Work on the development started in April of last year and it has been an uphill battle with the city and the developers (Mountain West, Multi Tech Engineering and Wind River Homes) to get any kind of information what is happening. The only plans that are on file with the city are out-of-date and are not being adhered to, but when we contact the city, they shrug and re-refer us to those same plans.
Over Labor Day weekend, a tree service came out and cut down a number of trees that had been marked for conservation according to a letter we received from the city in October 2015. Additionally, they cut major limbs off every white oak tree (all of which were marked for conservation), potentially endangering the lives of the trees. I went out with the letter from the city to try to stop them before they cut down a massive, several-hundred-year-old fir tree, but they shrugged and said even though the letter from the city did seem to indicate that tree should be saved, they couldn’t go against their orders.
Since it was Labor Day weekend, I’m sure you can imagine how much luck we had getting anyone from the city involved. By the time we got contact with anyone, the trees were long gone – and the city planner didn’t even care, anyway.
Losing so many trees was absolutely devastating... But compared to the bizarre reshaping of the land they are up to now, it almost feels inconsequential. A few days after the tree-cutting fiasco, they tore down the house on acreage directly behind our property (which was indicated on the original plans approved by the city, the ones the city planner continually refers us to, as remaining and becoming part of the new neighborhood) with no permit on file.
Lisa showing me the giant artificial hill
They then graded down the hill that the house was built on and used the loose red dirt to grade up an artificial hill directly behind our house. There is now a 20-foot artificial hill on the south side of the private road. Nothing was done to mitigate water run-off – previously there had been a drainage ditch and a culvert as this was a flood-prone area, but they filled in that ditch and did not create a drain or any other means to divert water.
We contacted the city to express our concerns about this about a month ago. We got a hand-wave.
Video of the artificial hill collapsing
Over this last weekend, when the torrential rain hit, a large section of the artificial hill collapsed. Four feet of mud slid down and caked both the driveway and our next-door-neighbor’s backyard. Our neighbors who live in the 1920s house were trapped in their house during a massive storm. When they tried to leave the next day, their car got stuck and it took almost three hours for Triple-A to get them out.
Video of the subdivision-caused flooding of Lisa's house
Additionally, our backyard and the lower part of our house were flooded. A two-foot-deep river of water and mud rushed through our backyard like white-water rapids. The crawl space under our house is full of water damage now.
We called Salem Public Works and an Environmental Compliance Officer came out and said this was one of the most egregious cases of lack of erosion control he had ever seen. He said the city is notoriously flippant about addressing erosion and more concerned about rubber-stamping every proposed development.
The excavation company that did the grading finally came out to check on the landslide yesterday. Their solution was to throw gravel at everything – even though there was still standing water on the driveway, they did nothing to drain it. It was at least a foot deep yesterday afternoon.
The only thing keeping it from running into our yard and our next-door neighbors’ was a patch of gravel holding their erosion tarp in place. Our neighbors in the 1920s house are, I can only assume, trapped again, because the water looks much too deep to safely drive through. And, of course, the next time a big storm blows in, since they only reinforced the part of the hill that broke, the rest of the hill is prime to give out.
When we contacted the city planner we’d been in touch with about this latest fiasco this morning, he told us to stop contacting him. So that’s it. Our house is now in a major flood and landslide zone, one artificially created that did not exist as a threat before this summer, and the city is not interested in doing anything about it.
That’s why I’m reaching out to you. Our neighbors in the 1920s house have been told that the developer is planning on expanding the artificial hill and taking away their driveway, giving them an alley through the development instead. If the hill is built closer to our properties, the landslide risk becomes even greater as it takes away the small buffer the road provided.
The white oak trees, already injured by the massive limb removal, will be in even more danger. If houses are built on the artificial hill, they will likely collapse in addition to the mud. And there is nothing in the plans for water management, so the water has nowhere to go except our yard, which is now the lowest point.
Our trees, our property and possibly our lives are in danger if they truly are planning on following through with this plan – and since the city has abandoned us and refuses to give us any information, we have no way of knowing if or when this will happen. Since you have dealt with this sort of thing before, if you have any advice or at least are willing to raise awareness about it, I would very greatly appreciate it. Thank you so much!
After I asked Lisa some questions about the tree removals she mentions, I got a reply that said, in part:
As you can see, much of our information in this entire affair has been word of mouth, which is leaving us in a he-said, she-said situation. This is part of the reason we are so frustrated and why I reached out to you to begin with.
If the city and the developer would be forthcoming with information and willing to answer our questions, we would be more inclined to let things go. But there is nothing on the public record except the exceptionally out-of-date plans from 2013 that we can see with our own eyes are not being followed.
Download SUB13-02 & UGA06-18A Decision
The plans that the city and developers continually refer us to (when they respond at all) have no information about the fake hill behind our house, nothing about a retention pond or settling pond, nothing about demolishing the house that was supposed to be on Lot 137. They show houses behind us on natural ground level, not perched 25 feet over our heads on a poorly graded hill made of loose red dirt.
These changes are matters of great concern to us, but when we ask directly we are evaded or ignored. If they would answer our questions, we would let things go. But when they give us the runaround, we have no way of planning or anticipating or preparing ourselves. This is why we are angry.
Me too, Lisa.
If you are also, let the Mayor, City Manager, city councilors, and other City of Salem officials know how you feel: email them at firstname.lastname@example.org