Sunset Drive on the side of Signal Mountain is shifting, leading Hamilton County Emergency Management to question the safety of several homes.
One of those homes has been evacuated, and a second has been empty since July, said Chris Adams, fire marshal and director of Hamilton County Emergency Management.
Hamilton County Highway Department officials placed seismic monitors on Sunset Drive last week, after a homeowner asked emergency management personnel to look at the power lines on his property. The lines were pulled tight, indicating the home had shifted, Adams said.
The homes sit on a geological formation that Adams refers to as a "Pennington shelf," where three other homes are also located. Those homes have not been evacuated, he said, but that does not necessarily mean they are safe.
Adams said if someone from his department can see cracks in a home or other indicators that the land underneath is shifting and the homeowner may be in danger, then they would knock on their door. But if a house has no visible damage or cannot be seen from the road, county officials must be invited onto a homeowner's private property in order to evaluate a home's safety, he said.
A structural engineer will decide if and when the residents who have been evacuated can return home, said Adams.
The shifting ground also caused a water pipe underneath Sunset Drive to pull apart, which happened for the first time last week and again on Thursday, leaving the road's 30-35 residents without water until the town of Signal Mountain was able to temporarily fix the pipe.
"The same issue that's affecting [Hamilton County's] road is affecting our water line," said Signal Mountain Town Manager Boyd Veal, emphasizing that the issue is not a water main break. "The ground is actually moving and pulling our pipes apart at the joint."
For the temporary fix, the town's water department used flexible, high-density polyethylene pipe left exposed on top of the ground so the pipe would not be susceptible to ground movement.
"We're doing some temporary repairs. What we will do ultimately will depend on what the county decides in terms of road repairs," said Veal, adding that the town is looking into extending the temporary pipe within the next few days while it waits on the county's decision on a permanent fix.
Hamilton County Communications Director Mike Dunne said the county is continuing to monitor the movement of the ground, and no permanent fix is possible until they know the ground is stabilized.
Adams said he is not aware of anything similar happening on Signal Mountain in the past. But the exceptionally high amount of rain — 16.04 inches between Jan. 1 and Feb. 20 — is also unusual.
"I've never seen in my entire career this much movement," he said of the shifting land.
"According to the geologists that have been out here looking at it, [similar shifting] happened back in the '70s, but there weren't all these houses out here," said Alicia Manning, whose home was among the first built in the neighborhood, known as Majestic Views, in the early 1980s. She's lived there 22 years and is the home's third owner.
"I've had problems with my house, but it was really more the way it was built," she said.
Her house was built on fill dirt, which she said is part of her problems.
"They brought in clay, and then instead of putting a layer of gravel, they put foundry sand, which was prevalent back in the '80s," she said.
Her problems began in the early 2000s when there was a drought, which caused the clay to shrink.
"That clay shrank enough that the foundry sand, which is like face powder, started migrating away so my foundation collapsed in," said Manning.
She had work done then, but thinks the recent rains have washed away more of the foundry sand her house was built on. She also has underground springs all around her house — which she said are all over the side of the mountain — that have caused her driveway to shift.
But she believes the foundry sand is the main problem. It could be a problem that affects her neighbors whose homes were also built in the '80s, which was when most of the homes in the neighborhood were built.
Suzanne Dorough, who has lived in her home since it was built in 2006, said she's never had any problems with shifting land or water outages. But, like her neighbors, she's concerned and wants to see a permanent fix for the problems.
"Everything that's been done so far, from my understanding, it's all temporary," she said. "Because what's happening there, even if it's not directly impacting us, it indirectly will impact all of us" in the form of property values.
Home values on Sunset Drive range from around $100,000 to just over $1 million, according to Hamilton County property records. Manning and Dorough said their property values have not decreased since they moved to the neighborhood.
Residents are concerned about the recent issues with the road and water outages, but that's not preventing people from wanting to move to Majestic Views. Two homes are currently under construction in the neighborhood, and construction is soon to begin on another, Dorough said.
"It's still a very popular neighborhood," she said. "People want to be here because we have a great view and it's convenient to downtown. This is the best place to live, and it wouldn't be popular if these were historically bad problems."
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