The owners of a house that was seriously damaged when a huge boulder fell from the Rimrocks in October have been hit with a code violation notice from the city of Billings.
The notice, dated Dec. 2, gave Jon Lodge and Jane Deschner 10 days to deal with the “public nuisance” by demolishing the house and removing heaps of rocks and boulders from their property.
“I thought we were working together to figure this out and then this letter came last week that was just crazy,” Deschner said, citing the impossibility of demolishing the house and disposing of boulders weighing up to 50 tons in just 10 days.
“If you fail to abate the nuisance within the time prescribed, the City has the authority to abate the nuisance, with the costs of the abatement to be paid by you,” the notice said.
However, attorneys for the homeowners and the city agreed Thursday to a 30-day extension on the notice, and Assistant City Attorney Kelly Addy said the city never did expect Lodge and Deschner to deal with the mess in 10 days, or even 30 days.
He said the filing of the code violation is part of a process that has to be followed in order for the city to undertake the abatement itself. By filing the notice, and waiting for the deadline to pass, the city then would have authority to do what needs to be done on the property, and to fund the project through an “emergency procurement.”
With approval of the City Council, emergency procurement would allow the city to bypass regular bidding and contracting rules and get the job done as quickly as possible, Addy said.
Lodge and Deschner's house at 1313 Granite Ave. was hit by a boulder estimated at 50 tons on Oct. 9, when an enormous rectangular slab of sandstone sheared away from the Rims and broke into smaller pieces that went tumbling downhill. The boulder destroyed half the house — including the master bedroom, a guest room, the laundry room, Deschner's art studio and some of the kitchen — and pushed the whole house two feet forward off the foundation. Lodge was the only one home at the time and he was not injured.
Deschner and Lodge have been allowed to go into the house to retrieve what belongings were not destroyed, but because the boulder has continued to shift inside the house and because the Rims above remain unstable, their insurance company basically warned them not to let anyone in the house who was not bonded and insured.
By Oct. 22, Fischer Construction had done $10,000 worth of work on the exterior of the house, attempting to stabilize it with steel beams, cables and other materials. Even with those precautions, the city's violation notice says, the threat of unstable rock on the property “is imminent.”
In late October, the homeowners filed a lawsuit against their insurer, Brickner Insurance Co., and the parent company, Hartford Insurance. The suit said the insurance company had not made a determination on whether the homeowners' policy would cover their losses, and Deschner said Thursday that that determination still has not been made.
The suit also named the city of Billings and the state of Montana as possible co-defendants because the Rims above Granite Avenue are owned by the city and because the state Department of Transportation may have contributed to the accident by funneling water toward that section of Rims through a culvert that runs under Highway 3.
The city has already had a private engineering company investigate what it would take to bring down a couple of large slabs of sandstone still clinging precariously to the Rims alongside the portion that fell away. Addy said the work on the Rims has to be done before any work is done on the house, which is another reason the city wants to move as quickly as possible.
Addy said the city theoretically could place a lien on the property to pay for the costs of abatement, but that he couldn't see that happening. More likely, he said, the city would hope to see the involvement of the homeowners' insurer, and the city itself would probably pay some of the costs.
But the insurance company has been mum so far, Addy said, and the code violation notice is “something we hope will catch their ... attention.”
Addy said much the same thing in a letter he sent Thursday to the homeowners' attorney, Rodney Hartman of Billings. Addy said the 30-day extension will give Hartman “additional time to get a meaningful response from The Hartford Co.” A bit later in the letter Addy added: “It would certainly be nice to have a more proactive participation from The Hartford at this critical time.”
Billings attorney Peter Habein, identified in the letter as representing The Hartford, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Deschner said nobody from the city had explained to her or her husband that the threat of being billed for the demolition and cleanup work was just a formality that probably wouldn't lead to any such action.
She said the city's threatening letter stirred up all “the anxieties, insecurities and fears” she and her husband felt in the immediate aftermath of the incident. She said she woke up at 2 a.m. a few nights ago and couldn't get back to sleep for worrying.
It may or may not be any consolation, but Addy feels the same way. He said the imminent danger of more rocks falling off the Rims, or of the rock inside the house shifting and tumbling further downhill, combined with the danger and unpredictability of removing the house and the rocks, make this a uniquely stressful situation.
“I just don't sleep well thinking about this,” he said.
Contact Ed Kemmick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1293.