GILLETTE — Miranda Miller’s home is slowly crumbling.
She started to notice it a few months ago when she first saw a large crack in her living room ceiling.
“My house is being pulled apart,” she said.
There are nails in her hallways that are being pressed out of the drywall and are visible through the paint due to strain.
Her whole hand fits between where her concrete patio ends and backyard lawn begins, which she believes is a sign that the backyard lawn is sinking and separating from the foundation.
There is a large, 3-foot high crack in the wall of her garage that wasn’t there a year ago.
She also has sanded off the tops of the doors in her house so they will shut properly. Now those same doors won’t line up with their metal latches because the house has moved significantly in the last month.
Miller said she and her family were not warned by anyone about these issues.
“I want someone to take responsibility,” she said. “I want someone to take my house back that should have never been built.”
Miller lives on Goldenrod Avenue in the Iron Horse Subdivision, a part of Gillette that is no stranger to foundation issues, lawsuits and foreclosures.
The city of Gillette has been keeping a close eye on nine homes in the subdivision that either need to be repaired or torn down.
Some, like those at 3405 and 3407 Goldenrod Ave., need to be demolished.
Others on Lonigan Circle can be saved. Two homes in the subdivision were bought recently and work is being done to lift the foundations to make them livable again.
There also are several houses in the subdivision — which has more than 100 homes — that show no sign of structural issues.
In 2015, a group of homeowners in the Iron Horse subdivision banded together to file a lawsuit against builders, developers, engineers and a number of other companies that they blame for building a subdivision where they shouldn’t have.
In the lawsuit, the homeowners asserted that those companies or individuals were responsible for issues involving cracking, sinking and settling of their houses and the street.
The businesses involved included MRJ Development, JMB Homes, Brent Thumma, P.E. and Centennial Collaborative.
The civil complaint requested at least $50,000 for each of seven homes damaged. The homeowners all bought the houses between 2010 and 2014.
The houses seemed sound when they bought them, but shortly after moving in, the group of neighbors started experiencing problems, according to the complaint.
The complaint said the foundations were not designed with drain tiles and sump pumps to protect them from moisture. The properties are located in areas without suitable storm drainage and structures to prevent storm-water runoff from unsold and unfinished lots on the street.
The complaint also said the houses were not built to account for natural conditions, including slopes, soils, drainage springs and seeps. It alleged that soil was not properly compacted under and adjacent to the street and sidewalks, under the foundation for the houses and in utility trenches.
All of those who filed suit had experienced significant shifting in the floors, walls, ceilings and foundations of their houses. That caused damage to living areas, crawl spaces, garages, driveways, yards and fences, resulting in health and safety risks to the families living in the homes, according to the complaint.
The complaint came after the group of homeowners and others from the Iron Horse Subdivision petitioned the city of Gillette to add additional drainage in the area, which was partially prompted by flooding in the street earlier that summer. The effort was unsuccessful, but the city was not named in the lawsuit.
Later that year, the city agreed to fix the pavement on Goldenrod Avenue to hopefully stop the flooding issues at the intersection. The city ended up spending about $325,000 on concrete improvements.
Attorney RT Cox, who represented the homeowners along with Ryan McGrath, said the group settled with all of the defendants for an undisclosed amount.
Three years later, Miller is experiencing similar issues.
She tried to sell her home when the 2015 lawsuit was in progress and when her husband was scheduled for a transfer with the railroad, but the career move never happened.
The Iron Horse subdivision is about a mile west of Highway 14-16 along Echeta Road and near Overlook Park.
Mike Cole, the city of Gillette’s utilities director, said most of the homes in the subdivision were built from 2008 to 2011.
The subdivision went through “a fairly strenuous review” by independent engineers and eventually was approved by the city, he said.
Those tests consisted of engineering studies, soil tests, geotechnical surveying and a number of other reviews that were eventually signed off by either one or multiple companies that were mentioned in the lawsuit.
City Administrator Patrick Davidson, who was not working with the city at the time, said it’s not the city’s responsibility to do “spot checks” or secondary tests when a subdivision is being built.
“We don’t second guess on the plans that come before us from private engineers,” Davidson said.
Because the engineering studies had the approval of the private engineer, they were approved by the city.
All of those reports should have been made available to homeowners if the home was bought new or through a real estate agent if it was bought later, Cole said.
“That area was put under a high degree of scrutiny,” Cole said.
Cox believes a lot of the fault can be put on the city for the issues in the subdivision.
To build a subdivision in the city of Gillette, there are certain requirements that need to be met. One is that the slope of a street can only be so steep.
Before the subdivision was built, Goldenrod had about a 6-7 percent grade, Cox said.
The topography of the subdivision slopes down to the southeast toward Goldenrod Avenue and Lonigan Circle.
To get around that, soil was taken from the top of the hill and put at the bottom of the hill to soften the slope, Cox said.
After the homeowners settled with the defendants, Cox helped hire a private engineering firm to conduct a study on the subdivision to find out what went wrong.
According to the report — done by a company called Strata — it was determined that developers had cut about 13 feet of soil near Kilkenny Circle (at the top of the hill) and about 6-8 feet of “fill soil” was placed along Goldenrod Avenue and the lots on the south side of the street.
That means there was soil on the bottom of the hill that was not “native” to the area, as Cox put it.
When the homes were built, they were built on softer soil that had just been moved and when it rained over time, that soil shrunk and shifted like wet sand, according to the report.
Cox believes all of that should have been reviewed by the city’s engineering department at the time.
“Approving that grading plan was nuts,” Cox said. “The engineering study, the grading plan, it was all rubber-stamped by the city just because it had an engineer’s stamp on it.”
Cox also said the city could have avoided recent issues by installing a new drainage system. At the time, residents in the area petitioned the City Council to add more drains to prevent future flooding.
Cox said he collected 62 signatures from homeowners and presented it to city officials.
“They refused to do anything,” Cox said, adding that many of the officials he met with no longer work for the city.
The problem, Cox said, is there are only three storm drains on Goldenrod Avenue and eight on Lonigan Circle. None of them are on the bottom of the hill where heavy rainfall comes down the steep hill of Kilkenny.
Instead of adding more storm drains, the city opted to spend about $325,000 on street improvements.
Ken Rogers, the city’s chief building inspector, told the Gillette City Council recently that flooding is still an issue.
Davidson said more street repairs to Goldenrod Avenue are scheduled for budget year 2021.
Miller wants someone to be accountable.
“I think the city shouldn’t have let them build here,” she said. “They should have done more research.”
At this point, Cole said, there isn’t much the city can do for homeowners.
Davidson has met with Miller about the issues she is having. He said the city is keeping a close watch on flooding and has made it clear to the streets division to monitor the area before winter.
The two homes on Goldenrod Avenue that are falling into each other will soon be demolished. Two different banks own the homes and one already has pulled a demolition permit.
Miller has also reached out to her two City Council representatives, Dan Barks and Shawn Neary, but there’s only so much an elected official can do.
Miller wants someone to take the blame for the houses that can still be saved.
“This is a flood area,” Miller said. “These houses should have never been built.”
“I really think the city let those folks down,” Cox said.
For Miller, her choices are also limited at this point, and she doesn’t put all the blame on the city or on the contractors.
“It looks like (the city) is moving quickly to get a plan for the streets, but that doesn’t help my house,” she said. “I could understand if this was a sinkhole affecting two homes, but this is an entire neighborhood. This isn’t Mother Nature. This is someone’s fault.”
She’s thought about selling her house for what it is, taking a loss, moving on and building her credit back up.
Even that is a daunting task.