SWAMPHERST Suburban Life Really Sucks

by Chris Abbey

In a development of hilariously symbolic justice, the grossly overdeveloped parasitic swamp-town of Amherst is actually sinking under its own weight. Thatís right; many homes in the squeaky-clean, traffic congested culture-void are slowly returning to the earth from whence they came, possibly drawn inexorably to the bowels of hell, where many of their owners surely belong. Those of us still living in the city have little sympathy for Amherst homeowners, who abandoned Buffalo for suburban sprawl and now have epic property nightmares on their hands. We understand, mind you, but thatís not our problem. Sound familiar? Anyway, with a 1000 homes and counting suffering from mild to severe structural damage and massive repair bills, thereís an awful lot of finger-pointing out in the Ďburbs, as sheltered white folk try to place blame.

The homeowners (and their lawyers) blame everyone in shouting distance, while town officials, developers, and contractors say that nobody could have predicted these problems way back when the construction floodgates opened. The population of Amherst has almost doubled, from 63,000 in the late 1960ís to 117,000 today, and thirty years of constant development have made it the fourth largest suburb in America, largely at the expense of Buffalo. Developers followed a ruthless, robotic plan: make every available piece of land into houses, apartment complexes, strip malls, offices, shopping centers, schools, and universities; along with the necessary roads, power lines and utilities; in an aggressive campaign that produced a highly economically and socially viable community. Itís also completely sterile and devoid of natural features, except for some window dressing here and there. Now the foundation itís built upon is crumbling away, and those shiny suburban neighborhoods everybody wanted to live in are sinking like identical Titanics.

Environmentalists are having a banner day crying I Told You So because Mother Earth is flexing her muscles and causing major damage. Many thousands of years ago Amherst was the flat bottom of ancient Lake Tonawanda, a product of the Ice Age, when glaciers covered the area. Centuries of glacial freeze and thaw produced a lake which slowly built up layer upon hardened layer of silt to a depth of sixty feet or more in some places. With the help of evaporation and runoff, the slow draining and drying process over time left a muck of ancient clay on a flat flood plain with less than one foot elevation shift per mile. These were wetlands; an important part of the ecosystem.

Wetlands have a filtering effect on water flowing through creeks and underground streams, cleaning out contaminants in the same way your Brita pitcher renders horrendous Buffalo tap water palatable. Plants and animals thrive in these natural environments, which humans have traditionally found uninhabitable. Sadly, our advanced technology and intelligence allow us to create new municipalities without regard to environmental conditions, like cities of millions in desert areas that canít actually support their own populations without having everything piped in. Modern humans can comfortably inhabit wetlands by plowing them under, redirecting the runoff and draining all the water Somewhere Else, and thusly suburbia has spreads like cancer in a lab rat. All this tinkering and toiling has affected the natural environment of Amherst, and the effects are now being felt.

Proper planning is essential to any construction project, and that begins with a site analysis. Because the foundation of a house can exert a force up to six feet underground, and soil exerts a lateral load on the foundation sometimes in excess of the house itself, it is critical to take into account soil conditions to plan for a structurally sound building. The only way to determine this is to dig down as deep as you need to go and assess the situation from there. If the soil is full of ancient clay, as in Amherst, there are techniques to combat the problem, such as replacing it with good soil and compacting it in layers, pouring steel reinforced concrete foundations, and using piers to anchor the structure even further. This is expensive and takes more time, but the payoff is worth it: your house wonít start acting like the Amityville Horror as the seasons take their toll on the ground through the processes of ice segregation (water seeping into the soil and freezing, forcing soil particles apart and causing surfaces to heave), adfreezing (water freezing on the surface of the foundation producing huge uplift forces), and the force of hydrostatic pressure (the standing water around a foundation exerts pressure and can actually push water through concrete pores if strong enough).

But construction theory and reality can be widely divergent. Building up Amherst was great business for town officials; millions upon millions of dollars in public and private money have passed through their greedy fingers on the way to friends and supporters (like developers, contractors, construction suppliers, real estate corporations, etcetera), basically government as usual. Building permits were given out like candy, and cookie-cutter developments sprung up as fast as they could be built. The only two municipalities in all of New York State that allow houses with basements to be built in a flood plain are Amherst and Lancaster, both as a result of vigorous lobbying by town officials and developers in the late 1970s. Warnings from government soil and wetlands experts were resolutely ignored; why listen to some Department of Agriculture geek when thereís money to be made?

Wetlands are cheap to buy and easy to develop, despite environmental laws requiring a certain amount of mitigation to preserve watersheds. These laws allow developers to build a ďnewĒ wetland on the property, even if itís a half-hearted, faulty attempt that doesnít last and is anything but natural. Think of all the giant retention ponds and drainage ditches out in the suburbs, holding and carrying surface and subsurface water, re-directing the natural flow of things. This efficient, mathematically correct draining has dried out the soil and changed the effects of frost and runoff around houses that were not built to withstand such subsurface changes without expensive fixes.

Itís hideous press, and the suburban housing market has been fundamentally shaken. In order to fix damaged houses, heliacal piers costing two thousand dollars apiece need to be installed every five or six feet, sometimes twenty or thirty of them to secure a single foundation. Thatís sixty-thousand dollars in parts alone and the laborís not cheap; it can add up to more than half a houseís price. Suburbanites are traditionally nice people with nice jobs, nice cars, nice kids, and nice possessions, living the American Dream on credit cards and multiple mortgages, so when a seventy-five thousand dollar repair bill pops up itís pretty devastating. All of sudden little Suzy wonít be getting braces, Johnny has to go to a state college, and mom and dad have to drive used cars. Horrors!

This is what happens when power is used for economic gain without regard to the environment. The insurance companies wonít cover the damage, town officials and developers wonít take responsibility because they followed the building codes, and Amherst is too wealthy a place to apply for federal aid, so homeowners are left holding the bag. The impact on future home sales, assessments and growth in Amherst will be severe, and so will the political fallout as conditions worsen. As with any new municipal problem, the only thing being done is a study by the Army Corps of Engineers which will take another year and should definitively conclude what we already know: Amherst is flat, the soil is of low quality, and changing its water retention and drainage patterns caused a big problem.

Thereís no doubt that some of these houses were built by bad contractors with low grade materials in a shoddy fashion, but many more were built to standard and professionally done. Commercial building codes are much more stringent than residential building codes, and places like UB and the Galleria Mall were built with extra foundation supports because engineers knew exactly what they were building on. Why these standards were never applied to residential housing is a serious question, only a few decades too late to prevent whatís happening now.

The new code in Amherst calling for reinforced concrete foundations on all houses is a knee-jerk reaction to shift liability away from town officials. Developers oppose it, because not every building site requires reinforcement, and they successfully lobbied for the new code to expire this summer. With all the lawsuits already and more in the making, town officials refuse to cut themselves off from any cash enterprises because this could potentially wind up costing the town millions. Amherst twists in the wind, waiting for the big bailout weíll all eventually wind up paying for. Until that time comes, they have a public relations nightmare thatís only getting worse.

Itís certainly one mess we here in Buffalo are glad not to have and, of course, cannot help pay for. We may be a corrupt, crime ridden, bankrupt city whose schools are so bad even the County Executive wonít send his kids to them, but our houses are still standing. Caveat emptor, my friend; this is America; when you buy something, especially a house, without knowing exactly what youíre getting into, thatís your own fault, and ignorance is an ugly legal position.

Of course you never thought of asking what the soil on your property was like, and of course the contractor never told you it was a messy soup of muck, and neither did the realtor or the Chamber of Commerce. You were focused on the suburban myth of modern living: Mini-Vans, day care, Little League, and Chuck E. Cheese. You noticed your lawn didnít grow like in the brochure, and the yard had a tendency to flood every time it rained for two minutes, and then one cold winter night the house went bang and everything got tweaked. For you, the suburban dream is over. You donít love your house, you hate it, and that feeling soon spreads to the rest of your life. But if you get that thing tied down good, and manage to pawn it off on another sucker, then consider moving back to the city. Our politicians are lying thieves too, but their policies havenít destroyed our housesÖyet.


letters to the Evil Editors should be addressed to:

© 2004 The Beast