Humpty Dumpty on Rockery Walls

Submitted by Geoffrey Brooks  –  Association Member

Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall

I woke up on Sunday to see the sun shining, a gorgeous spring day followed. I went for a walk and carried out my own cursory rockery wall inspection.

After a gloomy Saturday, a long well-attended presentation and QA session at the TCTC, one felt that Somersett’s world was coming to an end. All 13.5 miles of SOA walls are about to collapse. All privately owned rockery walls are doomed. What about the “not-surveyed” walls in The Village, The Vue, and Sierra Canyon? Litigation that will go on for 5 years (minimum) and cost, if it goes to trial (with expert witnesses) probably the best part of $5 million.

Basking in early Spring sunlight, I could see that most walls in my Somersett neighborhood and in the communities nearby in NW Reno seemed robust, solid, well built, surviving at least 15 years of rain and earthquakes.

Yes, after our do-it-yourself primer from American GeoTechnical and studying their report, I was alarmed. However, they simply have not accessed the relevant site records to see how each wall was built, and the quality of the soil at that specific wall site. The real question, is what caused our 360’ walls to fail? Maybe this is primarily due to the poor soil conditions, which when saturated with rain, oozed away. Soil liquefaction can cause buildings to topple, rock walls to crumble. Just google mudslides in Southern California! Well built walls and buildings were carried away, we all saw it on TV.

Somersett has been developed over the last 15 years. One can see from the current Toll Brother activities at Village 6, that significant terra-forming of the foothill soils of Mt Peavine are required to construct suitable building pads. There have already been failure of building pads, requiring extensive shoring up of the houses built on them. We do have bands of clay within Somersett, which need to be removed before building a house (or pad). Clay with water makes great ooze, which will flow! There was a successful Chapter 40 suit by Somersett Development against the designers and builders of the “cutting”, and extensive modifications had to be made for safety reasons.

Perhaps our legal efforts should be aimed at the “failures” – so far. It seems that the affected areas are on the golf course where extensive terra-forming has been performed. The 13.5 miles of walls surveyed (presumably on SOA land), were most likely built to the prevailing good building standards (for rockery and other walls) at the time. It seems highly unlikely that any of these were “improperly built”. Hence, unlikely to fail.

Walls do require maintenance. Our reserve studies calculate the life of a Rockery Wall at 30 years. Much of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain is still standing after 1800 years. At the turnover, all the construction records, permits, approvals, etc. should be on file with First Services and available for either expert or curious homeowner inspection.

Somersett as a whole, has little to worry about from collapsing walls, unless you have a home in an extensively terra-formed area … but then the unusual climatic events which caused the walls to collapse has happened already. So, I suspect that you have little to actually worry about now; if your rockery walls are still standing!

Remember, it was Humpty Dumpty who fell down and had to be rebuilt – NOT THE WALL!

13 thoughts on “Humpty Dumpty on Rockery Walls

  1. Don’t be fooled by the 30 year life in the Reserve Study.

    Every year the Reserve Study is updated with accompanying dollar amounts. One year the dollars are calculated based on the CPI, the next as part of an on-site visit; and rotating every year going forward.

    The Reserve Analyst is only required to “go out” 30 years. Every year the original “30 year life” is extended by one year. Going out ad infinitum is not required nor practical.

    The whole reason for the Reserve Study is to calculate as carefully as possible the amount of money that should go into the Reserve Fund as part of calculating the total amount of dues the Association needs to receive for its Reserve Account (Savings Account) and its Operating Account (Checking Account) for the twelve months covered by the Association’s Budget.

    I doubt any owner can look at a rickety wall and know its condition. Better leave that to the pros.

    1. The pros couch their report, saying that they have not researched the relevant construction permits, don’t know anything about the soil conditions. Their commentary is based on visual observations; slope; whether the rocks are staggered; are there any tell tale signs that sediment, gravel have been washed through, specifically at the base.

      Their photos, assessment should be matched up with the construction permits, soil reports for any specific wall… actually as all these details will have been turned over to SOA by SD when residents took over control of the HOA in 2013. A job for FR?

      Any owner can look at a wall and make a general assessment based on the Geo-Techs report, and, make as good a judgement as whether the wall is in imminent danger of falling!

      Science is all about observation!

  2. First of all thank you for signing your name. Secondly, GREAT write up. I did the same thing on Sunday. I did see some defects and I did see some walls that were just built on top of the ground. I do think other perspectives are great to have.

  3. Why is it that I believe the American Geotechnical Report is not unique and could apply to 90% of all similar type rockery walls built in the Reno area. I also believe that the statute of limitations will prevail and result in an unsuccessful lawsuit. So why am I going to vote for ratification? Because of liability concerns and perhaps additional discovery will surface on its behalf. If not, hopefully the BOD will terminate the lawsuit before too much money is spent.

  4. There have 2 catastrophic wall failures that are costing SOA in excess of $2.5M to repair. It is not unreasonable to assume that there will be similar failures in a percentage of the additional 349 rockery walls (where did 26 undocumented walls come from?). If you just assign a remediation cost of $100,000 per wall, the mitigation cost is $35,000,000 – not all mission critical tomorrow, but will need to be dealt with over time. SOA is making an investment it investigate whether or not there are parties to share this cost, and asking the homeowners to ratify the investigation. I agree with Jim Haar that the spaghetti probably won’t stick to the wall (maybe with 1 exception), but it is worth unleashing the dogs of war through the more detailed discovery period. The current suit and investigation is only on the rockery walls under SOA Common Space jurisdiction, but the information gleaner during the process will be of upmost importance to individual owners who will be facing similar questions about the construction and utility of the rockery walls on their private properties that were built contemporaneously., as well as to SC, The Vue and The Village HOAs.

    The cat is out of the bag, and all real estate transactions within Somersett must now disclose not only the pending litigation but also the underlying rockery wall issues. Markets react negatively to uncertainty, and the uncertainty about future assessments to mitigate the known rockery wall deficiencies will be over-reacting to the actual costs and liabilities (don’t ask for my current estimate unless you have a large supply of brown alcohol handy). SOA needs to be on the forefront to identify the the liability issues and mitigation plans.

    1. I think it is irresponsible to throw out these extreme numbers without thoroughly investigating the situation. At this point we know very little about 1. where are the problems? 2. What is the root cause? 3. What are the remediation alternatives and their costs? Geoffrey Brooks makes a good point about the clay soils. Are clays an issue for all walls? Improper drainage? At this point we have a high level geologic study designed to support litigation against SDC That’s all.

    1. With regard to property values, there are other HOA’s in town, with their own problems..We survived the Golf Course Purchase, and have moved on.. we don’t need to shoot ourselves in the feet, supporting further disagreement, which will only make Somersett look like a squabbling community..It’s a great community, and we must allow this issue to play out.. I suspect that many walls where problems exist may never fail, or could be repaired more easily than first thought.

      1. Our Miss Brooks,Somersett IS and has always been a squabbling community. It is what you do best!

        But it is a good time to step back and ask a few questions before the votes are cast:
        – Are there any actual legally defined construction defects in the rockery walls?
        – Why did SOA file suit without knowing this, and placing the entire development in a “must disclose: position?
        – Why are the SOA lawyers being so lazy on the front end? What information has been added since the suit was filed back in December?
        – How many of the walls are on property that SGGC transferred to SOA and must warrant for 4 years?

        I have real empathy with the homeowners that are discovering that the rockery wall issue will be costly and personal.


        1. Squabbling is not what the community does best.. This community is chock-full of volunteers, friends and community activists who enrich not only Somersett, but the city of Reno.

  5. Reading through the CME report carefully, this indicates that the walls which failed, were backed with land fill, contained clay (not allowed in any new pads, building sites) and became saturated during the 2017 torrential rainstorms (coupled with potential overwatering by residents/SGC).

    The Ridegfield Trail lower wall which failed was 14’ high, *(allegedly a 10’ max height – due to rock weight concerns, if higher) which increased the weight on the fill-soil to such an extent that it started to flow.

    Clay when wet is thixotropic – which means once it starts to move it will flow nicely.

    Perhaps Toll Bros re-designed Village 6, to best exploit the locally topography, which necessitated the removal of the “old walls”, not because of rockery wall construction concerns. The SOA map of Village 6, is so out of date, that there is no resemblance to the current Toll plans (available from city hall).

    So now we all are better educated in wall building we can look around…
    Point 1. No other walls have failed since the torrential rains… if they were doomed (as suggested by the Geo-Tech report) – surely they would have fallen.
    Point 2. 760’ of walls have failed out of over 70,000’ of rockery walls… so as a % all the walls look pretty sound
    Point 3. Half the cost of fixing the Ridgefield Trail Wall is the responsibility of the SGC
    Point 4. Assuming another 1% of the walls fail or are need of a major fix-up – the SOA costs are containable.
    Point 5. NW Reno is rife with rockery walls, all built less than 20 years ago – which look just like our walls – and are still standing.

    So I just don’t see why there is need for the Somersett Realtors to panic, no reason for future folks to live here and pay a fair market price for their housing (we still not up to 2006 values here in Somersett).

  6. Correction: To last paragraph – using the English double negative system caused me to mis=speak (unlike Pink Floyd and the Wall – “We don’t need no education” from “another brick in the wall”…

    …. Every reason for future folks to live in Somersett and pay fair market housing prices… no need for owners to panic!

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