Do you own a property on a hillside? Are you prepared for when it rains again in California and you experience an earth movement event? The following will provide you with a list of consultants and their areas of expertise you will need when you navigate your way through repairing the hillside. (Future articles in this multi-part series will deal with how to navigate your way through insurance company and public entity red tape, along with what to expect from litigation.)
After retaining counsel, the first consultant you should hire is an engineer. What kind of engineer? There are civil, geotechnical, structural, electrical, mechanical, chemical, etc. (there are 38 different engineering degrees one can obtain). Depending on the nature of your event, you want to start with a civil or geotechnical engineer. What’s the difference? In (very) short, civil engineers deal with dirt above or on the ground, and geotechnical engineers deal with dirt below the ground.
Okay, so how do you decide whether to call a civil or geotechnical engineer? There is no simple answer to this, but the easiest way to decide is based on the nature of your earth movement event. In looking at your hillside, if it appears that just the dirt and/or mud on the top slid down the hill, then it might be surficial, in which case you want to call a civil engineer. If there was a significant amount of dirt and/or mud moved, or if structures moved, you might have had a “deep-seated” failure, in which case you want to call a geotechnical engineer first.
The first visit to your property by an engineer (civil or geotechnical) will likely just involve a visual inspection. At that juncture, the engineer can steer you in the right direction in terms of what other investigation and/or experts are needed, in their opinion. Most (if not all) geotechnical firms also have a geologist on staff. A geologist will analyze the soil samples and, in conjunction with the engineer, determine how to go about repairing the stability of the hillside.
After all of the investigation is completed, the geologist and geotechnical engineer should write a report, documenting their findings and repair recommendations in such a way that it can be presented to a public entity as part of the repair process. This report also needs to be provided to the civil engineer, who can prepare the civil repair plans based on those findings and recommendations. (Depending on the repair recommendations, a structural engineer may also be required, but this is less common.) Most engineers are knowledgeable about their local public entities, including the grading department, and can help walk you through the permit process.
After the permit is issued, it’s time to start the repairs! In addition to needing the engineers and geologist throughout the repair process, you will need a qualified hillside contractor. Beware of a general contractor with no hillside repair experience, because your entire job will likely be subcontracted out and you will be charged an additional 10-30% for your general to “manage” the subcontractor(s). While it is likely that your hillside repair contractor will “sub out” some of the work, like landscaping, beware of the one that plans to sub out all of your repairs.
Before you actually break ground, you will likely need a surveyor to stake out the property boundaries. A survey should really be performed early on in the process, so you know on exactly whose property you are digging and repairing.
After the hillside repair contractor completes the main repairs, most public entities will require you to re-plant the hillside. The contractor or a landscaper can do the actual planting, which will likely have to include native, drought-tolerant plants. You may need a landscape architect to assist you in picking the type and location of trees and shrubs to plant. You might also need to retain an arborist.
One final note: beware of one guy wearing many hats and investigations that lead to no reports with repair recommendations. Below is a list of names and contact information for some hillside repair consultants that I have personally worked with and have found to be competent and trustworthy.
Mike Wagner, Touchstone Communities (San Diego)
Sam Samara, Samara Engineering (Los Angeles)
Scott Thoeny, MC Consultants (San Diego)
Jim Rowlands, Ralph Stone & Co. (Los Angeles)
Hillside Repair Contractor:
Steve Turnbow, Heiller Construction (Southern California)