The Coastal Post - April, 1997

Earth Moves After Buck Center Begins Excavation

By Don Deane

It began to seep into the news last month. Strange, subterranean movements, cracking concrete, damaged utility lines in a nine-year-old Novato subdivision. There was talk of lowered property values. By half? Altogether? Meetings were called. What could it be? The press was asked to remove itself voluntarily from a meeting. Channels 5 and 7 left. The Independent Journal left. The Novato Advance stayed.

The parties were trying to work towards a solution. Avoid litigation. The City of Novato, contractors, homeowners in the Partridge Knolls subdivision, the Buck Aging Center. The Buck Aging Center?

The Buck Aging Center began moving 1.3 million cubic yards of earth last month, the first stage in the construction of a $100 million research facility. It's pretty close to the Partridge Knolls subdivision. Maybe there's a connection.

This is the latest chapter in the sage of the Buck Center for Research On Aging. A project which has funding from the Marin Community Foundation's major projects.

A little more than a year ago the project was voted down, countywide, but approved 55 percent to 45 percent in the City of Novato. The city actively campaigned for its approval. Good for business. Progress. You can't stop progress.

The city was also instrumental in smoothing the way for financing of the huge building program. At one point it considered issuing Certificates of Participation, in essence, underwriting the project.

"The houses were fine until they dug the big hole," one attorney on the periphery said last week referring to the Buck Center's site preparation for the research facility. "It's premature for me to state conclusively where liability lies, but in light of this soil analysis that was done 20 years ago, I wouldn't be surprised if someone is liable."

That soil analysis was a study issued in 1975 by Geologist Salem J. Rice in conjunction with the Countywide Planning process. The study was paid for by the County of Marin and the City of Novato.

The report described the Mount Burdell area where the Buck Aging Center land excavation is taking place as being in an ancient landslide zone. The report states, "Without competent engineering based on compete geologic analysis, any extensive developments involving significant cuts and fills or draining alterations can be expected to have potentially deleterious effects on the stability of the slump blocks... "

The report concluded that "as a general rule, these natural landslide masses (characteristic of the Mt. Burdell area) should be considered too unstable for the location of critical structures and underground utilities."

The report's conclusive concerns, a part of Novato's and the County's planning resource library, were not taken into consideration in the preparation of the county's Environmental Impact Report which was then adopted by Novato in approving the construction plan for the Buck Aging Center.

Novato City Attorney Jeffery Walter observed that there could be potential that the city and county would be liable for damages occurring at Partridge Knolls, but added that "Unless some city owned facility is contributing to the problem, the city would be completely exempt from liability."

Walter said the reason for the "closed door meeting" approach with the press was for the sake of avoiding litigation. "We want to see if we can mediate this before it reaches the courts. In addition, to make sure we deal with each other candidly, there has to be a cloak of confidentiality."

Little did the Partridge Knolls Homeowners Association know when it opposed the construction of the Buck Aging Center in 1995 that excavation for the project could threaten their very homes in 1997.

Canadian Imperial Bank and California Teachers' Retirement funds are funding construction of the Buck Aging Center. Speculation is that these funds could be in jeopardy should the excavation for construction of the Buck Aging Center be the cause for the earth movement at the Partridge Knolls subdivision.