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ON THE SCENE: The slide that’s upending Keene

June 27, 2011
“Imagine if you tip a large salad bowl on edge,” said Brian Bird, a geologist with the New York State Museum. “All the lettuce in the bowl would slide down and try to right itself. That’s what is happening here, the earth is trying to right itself.”

I was standing with Brian along with Dr. Andrew Kozlowski the associate state geologist with the New York State Museum and the director of the State Geological Survey and Keene Town Supervisor Bill Ferebee up in Adrian’s Acres near the edge of a scarf where land has dropped 15 to 20 feet taking with it a 88-plus acres of forest and at least one house. Earlier Supervisor Ferebee and I had stood at the bottom of the salad bowl so to speak, at the toe of the massive slide where a huge bulging mass of mud, rocks and trees was poised to engulf of power pole and a woodshed.

“Last week I could easily walk around this building,” said Ferebee. “Today we cannot. At the rate it is moving in a week or two it could start pushing it over.”

The ground under our feet was soaking wet by water, squeezed out from beneath the mass of earth, that, combined with deep thick layers of clay, was the grease enabling the land to move. Not lost on either one of us was that it was raining that day, and had rained hard over the weekend adding still more propellant to the largest landslide in the recorded history of the state of New York.

“People ask how much does all this land that is sliding down hill weigh,” said Kozlowski. “The construction crew moving the Marlatt’s house said it weighs 70 tons. That house is nothing in comparison to all the trees, rock and earth in over 80 acres of land. I can’t imagine the weight of all that.”

“Is this what it is sliding on?” I said poking at the rich soupy gray clay, the type the ceramic artists love to make pots from, that had been pulled up by a drill seeking and failing to find bedrock even 80 feet down.

“That’s what we are thinking,” said Bird. “It is consistent with the slides we have seen like this in other parts of the state. We believe it was set in motion by all the rain you have had combined with the record snow pack this past winter. We believe that was the driving mechanism for all this.”

“We had a lot of rain last fall,” I said. “The ground was thoroughly soaked even before it started to snow. Were these roads a factor as the cut off the normal flow of the water?”

“They contributed to the program, but the depth and size of this slides far exceeds what the roads have contributed. This land has been shifting for a long time, but very slowly.”

“When the leaves came out we got optimistic that this would slow down because they draw out a lot of moisture and put it back up into the air, but then you got hit with a lot more rain and the land slid a foot and a half in one day,” said Kozlowski. “As a complex geological scenario or problem it is right up there. We have no substrata detail at all. We sent down a drill and it was two to three times deeper than we thought. It had thick veins of clay and we never hit bedrock. We most likely have a hole here filled with ancient lake sediment. We know at some point it will come into some kind of a balance but we have no idea how long that may take.”

“I am worried about all the rain snow that will be packed into these cracks next fall and winter,” said Ferebee. “Next spring it could get worse.”

The Marlatts, a section of whose house was once thrust out into space as the land fell away beneath it, have chosen to move it back to the far edge of their property, no easy or inexpensive venture, and even so, the house would still not be on bed rock – the scarp could conceivable open up someday in its new location.

“I will lose the ability to have a basement,” said Charity Marlatt. “The geo tech guy calls it putting it on an island. We have to place it in a slab and to enable the ground water to flow beneath it. I was really hoping they were going to find bedrock, but they didn’t. My raw emotions about all this are not for publication.”

“What are the positives?”

“We have met so many wonderful people,” she said. “Almost every person who has walked on this property has been so positive, so helpful. Andy, Brian, Bill Ferebee, Scotty McClellen our contractor, Stan Barber the house mover, Peter Gibbs of the geo tech group, and the friends who have given us so much support. They have cooked us dinners. They helped us move things out of our house. They have done so much. We have to thank the whole community for their support. The vigil at the church meant a lot.”

“This will affect the assessed value of the town,” said Supervisor Ferebee. “It will affect the tax base. The value of these properties will go down, which will increase the assessment on everyone else unfortunately. There is no immediate tax relief on these property owners affected up here. Tax rates are set in March. They understand that. But it will be an assessor’s nightmare in my opinion. I think a study needs to be done of property in each town throughout the county to help us develop a plan in terms of what type of storm water runoff should be put into place. Property owners in Keene are not the only one’s at risk, and these gravel roads are putting a lot of silt in to the rivers.”

“Now much of this land is worthless to build on,” said Louise Gregg. “I just as soon that my taxes would not go up, but everybody’s in town will have to go up a little – everybody’s except those who land will go down in value.”

“It is about equity of assessment and everybody paying their fair share,” said Charlie Lewis, Essex County Real Property director. “If certain property values go down, others will have to go up.”

Article Photos

Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee inspecting the condemned home of RobertMachold and Elissa Ellsworth of Philadelphia, Pa

Photo/Naj Wikoff



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