In January, Dr. Joel McCullough agreed to pay $595,000 for a home in the upscale Wandermere Estates neighborhood north of Spokane.
At the end of March, he was told to get out, or risk his safety.
McCullough’s house and the one beside it are considered too dangerous to occupy as the ground beneath them shifts because of excess moisture. Officials placed signs on the doors last month and more recently installed plastic fencing around both properties. The signs warn: “Danger!!! Do not enter the area!!!! Unstable ground and falling debris.”
Now county officials, the neighborhood developer, the homebuilder, and several lawyers and engineering firms are trying to figure out how the home foundations became so unstable – and who, if anyone, is to blame.
“I’m not happy about any of this, to say the least,” said McCullough, a Providence Health Care doctor who previously held the top job at the Spokane Regional Health District.
The affected homes, at 13803 and 13811 Wandermere Estates Lane, sit just above a steep retaining wall made of stacked boulders. They’re part of a gated community overlooking the Wandermere Golf Course.
Developer Dick Vandervert, who laid the groundwork for Wandermere Estates, didn’t respond to messages left with his office on Tuesday.
Ted Miller, a builder who lives in the neighborhood, bought two parcels from Vandervert in 2013 and started work on the homes that are now condemned.
Miller and Ty Wick, the general manager of Spokane County’s Water District 3, said there’s a long history of concerns about water that seeps from the boulder retaining wall.
Around 2008, Wick said, neighbors raised concerns that a water main had burst near the two homes. He said inspectors didn’t find a break, but they did find a leaky fire hydrant that Vandervert fixed immediately.
There was a yearlong “warranty” period during which the developer was responsible for maintaining water lines, Wick said. Sewer lines are maintained by county engineers and technicians.
Wick suspects the seepage is excess groundwater. He’s not an engineer but said it’s “certainly not ideal” if the water is carrying sediment through the empty spaces in the retaining wall.
Miller, the homebuilder, said McCullough’s home will probably be OK. The earth movement has mostly affected the other house, which may need to be torn down, he said.
That house is owned by Daniel and Donna Berger, who couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
Before starting construction in 2014, Miller recruited geotechnical engineer Hank Swift to assess the two properties.
“He said they were solid as a rock,” Miller said.
Swift, who runs HKS Engineering in Rathdrum, Idaho, declined to comment Tuesday. So did Spokane-based Budinger & Associates, another engineering firm hired by the Bergers.
Randy Vissia, director of Spokane County’s Building and Planning Department, said his inspectors can’t decide the fate of either house until those private firms finalize their reports.
Vissia said there’s no fixed timetable for that process.
“The houses could be a long, drawn-out process just depending on the parties involved,” he said.
The homeowners are filing insurance claims and have retained lawyers.
McCullough is living in a rental until officials say it’s safe to enter his 2,900-square-foot residence in Wandermere Estates.
“The county and the engineers have been enlisted, and this is way beyond our technical expertise,” said Bill Butler of WEB Properties, a management company that works in conjunction with the Wandermere Estates homeowners association.