A slippery slope: Builders and engineers collaborate to manage hillside building trend in Cincy, NKY

Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 17, 2017

COVINGTON, Ky. -- If you’ve ever been involved in purchasing a custom-built home, you know the process can be complicated. Now, imagine building a home on one of Cincinnati’s sweeping hillsides, where the steeper grade also comes with greater challenges of regulation, planning and cost.

Hillside development has long been a controversial topic in the Seven Hills. On one hand, hillside homes afford breathtaking views of the skyline and river valley. On the other hand, skeptics point to historical missteps, such as the common 1920s and ‘30s practice of developers dumping excess cut materials downhill, resulting in landslide issues that continue to plague neighborhoods like Columbia-Tusculum today.

But despite the controversy, hillside development doesn’t appear to be a trend that’s slowing down anytime soon. In fact, Northern Kentucky agencies now rely on the expertise of neighbors to the north to streamline the process and implement regulations that make the process of hillside building safer for residents and more environmentally sustainable.

Mark Pottebaum represents Redknot Homes, a local custom builder specializing in hillside developments that is currently building 19 hillside homes in Dayton, Kentucky.

Pottebaum said the process of hillside building is one that requires time -- and patience.

“I always tell my clients, allow for 90 days to get through permitting and zoning,” he said. “It’s a lengthy process. You add to that the time to prepare plans and documentation and schedule hearings, and it can be a four- or five-month process.”

That’s because every project undertaken in what the City of Cincinnati refers to as a “hillside overlay district” requires pre-consultation with a geotechnical engineer, who is tasked with taking soil samples and deciding whether the site is stable enough to support a structure.

While the hillside building process in Northern Kentucky is slightly less restrictive, it’s still not without its challenges, according to NKY Home Builders Association spokesperson Brian Miller.

“Most regulations in NKY are going to say that anything over a 20 percent slope is going to be considered developmentally restrictive,” Miller said. “That means that there’s going to be all sorts of added oversight by planning commissions and engineering for counties and cities. They’re going to make sure that what you put there is not going to be detrimental to neighbors or to the property owner.”

Jay Thelen, of Thelen and Associates, is one such engineer with a wealth of experience in hillside building projects. He believes that taking residential living vertical is not only an advisable practice, but a necessary one.

“We’re running out of flat areas to build,” said Thelen. “If (hillside building) is done right, I’m all for it. There’s no building project that can’t be done without the appropriate engineering; it’s just a matter of if you can afford it and if you can meet the necessary regulations.”

Thelen added that in a region made up mostly of hillsides, it’s no surprise that many are slipping.

“Mother Nature is really weird; if you see a crack in the top of a hill, that’s the beginning of a landslide,” he explained. “It might stay put for 50 years, or it could fester and turn into a very bad problem in a short amount of time.”

To safeguard against that threat, geotechnical engineering teams like Thelen’s conduct extensive upfront soil tests designed to determine, in addition to other factors, the depth of slippage-prone overburden soil that builders must go through in order to reach bedrock.

“Once you get to that rock, it’s extremely stable and you’re not likely to have any issues,” said Thelen.

Once the geotechnical consulting phase is complete, hillside homebuyers must submit the engineer’s report as well as other documents to the area zoning commission. They are required to attend a hearing -- often open to the public -- where they present their case for building and address any concerns from existing residents and neighborhood committees.

For many, the process of securing approval to build on a hillside is more trouble than it’s worth. But a determined few homebuyers persist, Pottebaum said, because the result is everyday access to incomparable views.

“As a builder, we absolutely love and are very bullish about urban living,” said Pottebaum. “If you’re going to live close to downtown Cincinnati and you want a view, you’re almost certainly going to be on a hillside. It’s exponentially more difficult to build on those sites, but we want to provide the best in urban living, so that’s why we’re interested in working in those areas.”