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Davis Journal

Living on the Edge: Homes on the hillsides of Davis County

Apr 08, 2022 11:49AM ● By Tom Haraldsen

Development along the hillsides in Davis County continues to increase, even with a myriad of restrictions in place that add to the expenses of new homes. Photo by Roger V. Tuttle

If you’ve ever dreamed of sitting in your living room or on a back porch enjoying unobstructed vistas and panoramic views, far away from society, you’re not alone. Cliff homes – homes built on mountainsides near naturally-made drop offs – date back centuries and were once built for security and protection from enemies. 

They are as popular today as ever, especially in Davis County along the Wasatch Front. Back in 2003, the county’s Council of Governments created a comprehensive hillside master plan in anticipation of future growth and development along the east bench. 

However, when reality sets in for those who want to build or have a home built on the top of a cliff, the design and construction considerations that involve engineering and architecture can be daunting, and very expensive.

Four main elements to remember when planning such a structure – topography, the combination of logistics, zoning and permits; solid ground, and protection from the elements. Communities along the hillsides in Davis County take all of those into consideration when permission is sought to build these homes for those who like living on the edge.

“There are a lot of geotechnical sign offs involved,” said Linda Horrocks, communication coordinator for the City of North Salt Lake, a community with lots of homes on tops of hillsides. “Those involve soils, grades of the streets, and many geographic elements that our city planning and engineering departments monitor regularly. Emergency responders such as police and fire departments must have easy access to an area being developed, and many other aspects are taken into consideration as plans are formulated.”

The first steps involve a city’s planning department and a planning commission, if a city has one. Usually a developer approaches a city with plans to subdivide an area and presents the plan to the city’s building department. Geotech firms from both the developer’s side and the city then check the site for a series of evaluations. If those reports agree, the developer then begins a concept plan with an engineer. That leads to review of the concept by the planning commission, the city council, and often with a public hearing. This same process is used no matter where a development is being considered–hillside or not.

Then, the process heads to the next phase.

“There’s a geologic hazard investigation done by the GT firms, staff, engineers – a contingent of different checks,” said Sherrie Pace, community development director for North Salt Lake. “This is the longest part of the process. Each analysis is reviewed and comments shared, and it can take anywhere from one to two years. If you have soils with any hazardous content, if they aren’t solid and could move or shift, if there is a high level of clay and if the soil isn’t considered stable or strong enough – all of those factors go into the mix.” 

She said groundwater tables are part of the yearly monitoring of sites, as well as seismic concerns specific to the geotech of a particular lot. All those reports are used once a homebuilder submits an application for a building permit. Criteria as laid out in the International Building Code Chapter 18 as it pertains to soils and foundations must be adhered to.

“It’s an onerous process, but we have to be certain we do all we can to protect all involved,” she said. 

It takes lots of time and money just to start the process of building the home. Is it worth it? We reached out to a few homeowners in the south part of Davis County for comments, but only one wanted to speak to it, and without using their full name.

“For us, this was our dream home, the last one we’d ever build before we will eventually downsize and retire,” said Ron G., who lives in Bountiful. “We were fortunate to find a lot that allowed us to build the home we wanted. We have solitude, an amazing view, and it’s like a glimpse of the world for us – where we live, shop and play.”

Any fears of living on a hillside and near the Wasatch Fault that runs beneath the east bench?

“Not really,” he said. “You look out over these views, feel like you’re flying or suspended in air, and worries just kind of slip away.”

As long as that’s all that slips away – which is the reason cities, developers and builders work so hard to make sure the homes themselves do not. l