Couple scramble to save their dream home from Adirondacks landslide

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Date: Saturday, June 4, 2011

KEENE -- When the low rumble of his refrigerator's ice maker in the night snaps him out of fitful sleep, Jim Marlatt initially fears he and Charity, his wife of 40 years, have lost the race to save their home.

So far, a slow-moving landslide that has 82 acres of forest, boulders and earth coming down the slope of Porter Mountain in the Adirondacks has spared the Marlatts' dream home. But as earth continues to fall away around the edge of the house, there is now 15 feet of open air between their bedroom and the ground below.

For now, two massive steel I-beams slipped in Wednesday atop the foundation are safeguarding the house, as the couple -- now sleeping on padded benches next to their fireplace, which is on still-solid ground -- make plans to lift the house and move it away from the growing precipice.

"I have been able to sleep better since those I-beams went in," said Charity. "This house is our retirement. We have to save this house."

It was 2003 when the Marlatts moved into the house on Adrian's Acres Lane, with its dramatic views across the valley to Giant Mountain, its sides visibly scarred with bare rock from long-ago landslides. Now the Marlatts and a handful of other homeowners, who live the hamlet of Keene Valley about a mile off Route 74, are finding themselves part of the largest landslide in the state's modern history.

The first clue that someone was wrong came May 6, after the Marlatts returned from a family visit to California. While they were gone, a carpenter had added a laundry room near their bedroom, and Jim noticed the bedroom door would no longer shut properly. Then Charity saw a tree outside their bedroom window was tilting at a weird angle and a crack in the ground near a place under the deck where she kept gardening equipment.

In geological terms, the Marlatt home now rests on the lip of a "scarp," which is an edge where land is sliding away, said Andrew Kozlowski, an associate state geologist at the State Museum and director of the state Geologic Mapping Program.

The slide was triggered by water saturating the ground, which is composed of rocks, sand and lake bottom sediments left behind about 12,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, when the area was a glacier-fed lake called Lake Chapel.

This spring's melting of heavy snows in the mountains, coupled with heavy spring rains, turned these sands and sediments into a semi-fluid mixture like pancake batter, said Kozlowski. And that mixture is now moving downhill from a scarp that zig-zags about eight-tenths of a mile through the woods.

So far, the earth has slid up to 30 feet in some places, as the ground breaks away, like a line of books that tip over, one after another, he said. Weighing hundreds of thousands of tons, the slide continues about a half-mile down the mountain, covering about 300 feet of vertical drop and ending in what is called a toe.

"It is now moving a foot or two a day, which geologically speaking, is screaming fast. We don't know how long this will continue or how far back it might go," said Kozlowski. "It could stop in a few weeks. Or it could keep moving for three months. Or three years. We just can't tell. It has to reach a new equilibrium."

He said the pace of movement slowed a bit after trees begin leafing out and drawing more water out of the soil. But more rain over last weekend caused the slide's pace to quicken this week. And the forecast for the next 10 days calls for a mix of rain and sun.

"Sun and more leaves, sun and leaves are what we need," said Charity. "The rain is our enemy." The couple has already emptied their home and now is arranging for a house mover to carry the home back from the slide to a portion of their property that is currently stable and where it could possibly be anchored to bedrock.

But the bill for such a move could run $150,000 or more, and the couple just learned their insurance carrier, New York Central Mutual, won't cover the expense. "We just got denied over the phone, and an adjuster did not even come up here," said Jim, a retired business executive. The couple used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they carried earthquake insurance.

Tim Trueworthy, a senior vice president for claims at New York Central Mutual, said homeowners policies typically do not cover landslides. He said the situation was "unfortunate."

The couple hopes the area gets declared a federal disaster area, which could make them eligible for federal assistance.

Kozlowski said short of a professional geological survey, it would have been very difficult for home builders to have determined the landslide risk there before the first homes went in about 25 years ago.

No one knows how many other landslide risk areas might be elsewhere throughout the mountains, he added. Unlike parts of the Capital Region, the Adirondacks area has not been mapped with aerial LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), an optical sensing system that can measure topography beneath thick forest.

"There could be hundreds of areas like this that could be investigated. If we knew about it in advance, it could help decide where people might not want to build in the first place."

Reach Nearing at 454-5094 or bnearing@timesunion.com