Neighborhood still crippled from flood-related landslides

Monday, August 16, 2010 at 12:39am
Forest Hills Landslide.png
Photo by Charles Maldonado

Forget for a moment the bizarre incongruity of seeing a survivalist retreat, militia training ground, or any other apocalyptic fantasy camp pop up anywhere in the comfiest nation the world has ever known. Try to imagine seeing something like that in Forest Hills, a lush, hilly little 9 square miles of expensive-looking greenery and top-of-the-line bird noises. But about three-quarters of the way down Saxon Drive, a dead-end road off Granny White Pike, the attitude takes a jarring shift. What had been nondescript wealthy becomes — looking up a very steep hill with a pebble-paved road locally called Upper Saxon Drive — aggressively paranoid. Even more striking: aggressively paranoid in a garish, rural way.

“Do not enter” says one ramshackle sign, spray-painted in red and black. “Danger keep out,” says another. Streamers of yellow caution tape are strung between the trees on either side of Upper Saxon, with extra bits hanging down like deli meat every two or three feet. About 100 feet up the hill from the makeshift roadblock, Upper Saxon is split open, a result of massive landslides during the May flood. Huge chunks of pavement hang off the side of what is now a steep, debris-strewn cliff, leaving a passageway too narrow and dangerous to drive on. And what little of the road that’s left doesn’t look terribly stable. A crack runs nearly the entire length of the hill.

Up at the top, a handful of residents in the neighborhood proper — eight handsome, well-appointed almost-mansions, each of which is elegantly secluded by the topography of the neighborhood — have found themselves in a unique post-flood situation.

With no real access to roads, the families here have been living in a surreal isolation. Neighbors, some of whom are pushing 90 years old, have all had to rent or buy golf carts to negotiate the sweaty climb up and down what’s left of the access road to get to their cars parked on Lower Saxon. Since it would be impossible to get a truck up here the Metro Fire Department has laid ready-to-go hoses in front of each house and portable pumping stations by each fire hydrant. One resident, Charles Scruggs, had to be taken out by a Metro Fire ATV after he suffered a heart attack last month. What’s more, the fix may cost as much as $1 million, and since it’s a private drive, the residents will likely have to bear that cost with little outside funding.

Linda Bradley, a real estate agent and 30-year resident of the neighborhood, and her husband Roger live closest to the worst parts of the landslide damage. She was home when the road collapsed on Sunday, May 2, but she wasn’t initially aware of just how bad it was.

“It collapsed Sunday morning. My son came up here and saw that the road had fallen in,” she said. “He told us just to leave, get out immediately.”

When they returned later that afternoon, they found their property covered in debris. What’s more, their water hookup had been severed. They still don’t have water service.

“That’s just it. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I have to establish a new water line [at the family’s expense]. We applied to FEMA for that. They say that’s worth $5,000.”

Bradley said she’s dubious about that figure. Of course, given the access problem, she hasn’t been able to get anyone up to begin the job.

Jenny Cobb, a business consultant who’s lived here since 1992, hasn’t had to contend with something so serious as a water service interruption. Still, it’s clear she’s become weary of the logistics of living on an urban island.

“There’s so many things you can’t do when you only have a golf cart,” Cobb said. “I have some student interns who work with me at the office during the summer. They stay up at the house, so just coordinating who’s going out and who’s going down ... it’s just one more thing to think about. It’s amazing how many times I’ll forget. I’ll go to the office, which is maybe 10 minutes from here, and realize, ‘Gosh, I just forgot something.’ That’s another 45 minutes.”

Cobb said while she’s extremely impressed with the fire department’s response to their situation, the possibility that there might be a fire is nerve-wracking.

“Oh yeah. The thing of it is is, No. 1 you can’t get out in a hurry,” she said, sitting behind the wheel of her golf cart. “This thing goes about [zero] miles per hour.”

Fixing the road

The really big question now is how and when is Saxon Drive going to be fixed. Three months after the rain, it’s a question bordering on urgency, said Doug Sloan, a lawyer for Metro Nashville’s legal department and a member of Mayor Karl Dean’s flood recovery team. Metro, which has provided extra fire and emergency services to the neighborhood, is not going to make an indefinite commitment.

“The effort that Metro’s gone to in putting emergency equipment in place is a temporary solution, not a permanent solution. I believe that before Metro’s forced to make a decision on how long that will be, the hill itself will resolve how long that will be in place,” Sloan said. “That road is not going to last much longer. When there’s a complete failure of that road, we will not be able to adequately protect the houses up there.”

For their part, residents have begun making efforts toward remedying the problem. Shortly after the landslide, they formed a homeowners’ association — the Saxon Ridge Road Association — to expedite the process of hiring contractors and applying for assistance. Dr. Robert Kessler, a Vanderbilt neuroradiologist, was elected president. Kessler said they’ve already hired a geotechnical engineering firm — Beaver Engineering — and gotten some numbers.

“The estimate is that it’s between $900,000 and $1 million, just based on preliminary data,” said Kessler. “Chris [Beaver, the company’s top engineer] has tried to come up with some creative solutions to our problem.”

But it will nevertheless be quite expensive, since repairing a fairly long road on top of a high-slope hill essentially amounts to a large civil engineering project. Of course, since it’s private, Upper Saxon is, legally speaking, essentially a driveway.

“We unfortunately can’t fix private property,” said Forest Hills Mayor William Coke. “They understand that. We’ve been trying to work together as best we can.”

Sloan said it’s a legal situation peculiar to Forest Hills.

“The same situation that they have on Saxon, it doesn’t exist in Metro because of how we do subdivision regulation,” he said.

In Nashville, he explained, a subdivision developer will build a road to the city’s specifications. When it’s finished, the road is handed over and becomes public property, thus Nashville’s responsibility. Sloan said it would be possible for the neighborhood to grant an easement on the road to Forest Hills, which could in turn use its public infrastructure disaster funds to help finance the project. But considering the cost, the fact that only eight homes are affected, and Forest Hills’ size, that seems unlikely.

“That would be a very expensive project for a city the size of Forest Hills,” Sloan said.

So the association has turned to FEMA. Each of the eight families was theoretically entitled to $29,900, which would have added up to nearly a quarter off the cost. They were given $17,000 each, which they appealed.

Initially, FEMA was denying all landslide claims because under the Federal Disaster Declaration, they weren’t considered “flood” damage. But Metro government discussed the issue with them, ultimately convincing FEMA that if residents could demonstrate that landslide damage did not occur prior to the weekend of the flood, they would be eligible for an appeal. Many have. The Saxon Ridge Road Association is still waiting on more information from Beaver before filing another appeal, Kessler said.

The City Paper inquired as to the status of landslide-related appeals but has not received a response from FEMA.

In any case, the Upper Saxon problem is academic until city-owned Lower Saxon, which abuts the hill and is now partly closed and scattered with trees and broken pieces of Upper Saxon, is fixed.