• City assesses aftermath of massive cliff collapse
     | December 28,2005

    MONTPELIER – Residents who were evacuated Monday following a hair-raising rock slide that sent boulders and trees cascading onto a busy street were expected to be allowed back in their homes last night, city officials said.

    The residents, however, will likely be asked to re-evacuate today as work resumes to clean up the slide, which is just a couple of blocks from the state capitol building. Elm Street will remain closed for a week or more as the city confronts the daunting task of figuring out how best to prevent future slides from the towering cliff above.

    City officials said a geologist will be on site today to look at the hillside and assess whether more rock can be removed.

    Tons of wet rock and earth slid down the steep hillside onto Elm Street Monday at about 4:20 p.m., taking out trees and utility poles and leaving a guardrail dangling from aptly-named Cliff Street above.

    Residents from 39 apartments at 87 and 89 Elm St., along with some Cliff Street residents, were evacuated Monday afternoon after the cliff edge tumbled down. Cliff Street residents and those living at 87 Elm St. were allowed back in Monday night, but tenants of the 16 apartments at 89 Elm St. had to make alternative arrangements with family or friends.

    "Everybody has found alternatives, or hasn't gotten in touch with us," said Garth Genge, director of asset and property management for the Central Vermont Community Land Trust, the nonprofit owner of the North Branch Apartments at 87 and 89 Elm Sts. The apartments are low- to moderate- income units.

    The high school was opened as a shelter Monday, but no one spent the night.

    The electricity to the area had been returned and Verizon was installing a temporary phone line Tuesday afternoon, City Manager William Fraser said. Traffic on Cliff Street was being limited to residents only because of the damage to the road.

    A big crane arrived in the afternoon to remove some of the fallen rock and possibly attempt to reach loose debris still above, and barriers were being installed in front of 89 Elm St., which lies directly in the path of the fallen rock.

    All tenants were expected to be nestled back in their beds last night, if they chose to return home after the excitement of Monday.

    "We think we'll be able to get them back in tonight," Police Chief Doug Hoyt said Tuesday afternoon.

    The barriers were installed to contain any additional slides. More rocks fell during the day Tuesday and, said Fraser, "We still think there is one section that is still precarious.

    "There's still a bunch up there and under the right circumstances, it could break free."

    Intermittently warm and cold weather that caused heaving in the ledge rock face, coupled with rain, was blamed for the unusually large slide.

    The area has seen rock slides in the past, but nothing this serious, Fraser said.

    In 1998, rocks slid into the back of an Elm Street apartment building owned by James Barrett that was situated just below the towering, jagged rock facade. The building was damaged and needed to be removed. The city had to get a court order to do so and then ended up in litigation with Barrett over who should pay for it, Fraser said. The two parties eventually agreed on a settlement that had Barrett paying at least some of the cleanup costs.

    Fraser and Hoyt Tuesday, however, weren't looking for someone to bill for Monday's slide.

    "I'm not really sure who is (the owner of the cliff). It could very well belong to the city. It could be a private owner," Hoyt said.

    The property is either owned by the town, Barrett, or both, Fraser said.

    "It's not a huge issue to us right now," the city manager said. "We've got to clean it up, and we're certainly not going to ask him to do it. Right now we're just trying to deal with the imminent hazard."

    Residents of 89 Elm St. were expected to be evacuated again today while that cleanup continued. Fraser worried more about foot traffic around the apartment building than tenants being inside. "It doesn't look like anything is going to burst into the actual building," he said.

    A longer term look by a geologist or engineer will then be needed to determine a permanent fix. That could take weeks, Fraser said. A past examination of the cliff resulted in the city creating a "containment" area that did not hold this large slide.

    Genge called owning apartment buildings in the path of falling rock "worrisome" and said he knew tenants were concerned. "But at the same time, what do you do about natural rock?" he asked.

    The land trust will rely on the city's recommendation about whether the apartments are safe for occupation, Genge said.

    Hoyt said he assured homeowners perched above on Cliff Street that the houses were safe for occupancy. "We tend to think those are OK. The homes are OK; the street is not," Hoyt said.

    "The buildings themselves are not going to fall down over the cliff," Fraser agreed.

    Afraid the weight and vibration of cars will jostle more rock from the unstable road base onto Elm Street below, officials were allowing just residents to drive on Cliff Street to their homes. Those on the upper side of the endangered section of roadway are being asked to take an alternative route through Hubbard Park.

    Fraser said the Hubbard Park road is usually closed during the winter, but city highway crews will keep the gravel roadway plowed and passable.

    Elm Street will be closed for a week or more while work continues, and Fraser estimated that a permanent fix would be weeks away.

    "I think we have a lot of big decisions ahead of us," he said.

    With the anxiety of the plunging rock was also relief, however.

    "As disasters go," this one wasn't that bad, Fraser said. "No one got hurt. No one's private property is ruined."

    Fraser also praised city workers' efforts and residents' patience.

    Contact Robin Palmer at robin.palmer@timesargus.com or 479-0191, ext. 1171.

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