Erik Backman says he and his wife, Julie Roberts, never intended to buy a home on the Puyallup River.
In April 2008, the couple bought their $430,000 dream home on the bank of Kapowsin Creek, a channel that connects to the river about 200 feet from their property in unincorporated Pierce County.
Backman said he consulted his insurance company before purchasing the home just south of Orting and was assured it was elevated well above any floodplain.
Now he’s suing Pierce County and the previous homeowners after years of erosion caused his deck to collapse in March 2012. He says the county ruined his home by abandoning levee maintenance.
He put up a makeshift billboard in his front yard this month publicizing his grievances.
“The county has me in a perpetual nightmare that without suit will never come to a resolution,” the former Hawaii resident told The News Tribune last week. “They’ve destroyed my home.”
The billboard, which pictures Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, reads: “We wanted this land ... so we ruined this home.”
McCarthy said she understands why she’s the “lightning rod” when people are angry at the government and she accepts that responsibility.
“On the other hand, I think this is a case that is going through an appropriate process,” she said. “I support going through that process.”
Backman claims the previous owners didn’t disclose important information, including that the county had offered to buy the property as part of a floodplain buyout program.
But he mostly blames Pierce County for forcing him out of his home.
His lawsuit accuses the county of diverting Puyallup River waters to his backyard and subsequently “taking” his property by deeming it unsafe to occupy after the home was damaged.
Pierce County denies the claims and states in court documents that Backman refused to work with officials on a “mutually agreeable resolution.”
Backman’s attorney, Richard Maloney, said his clients didn’t want to sue the former property owners. He said Pierce County has “pitted” the Backmans against the former owners.
Still, the complaint contends the sellers concealed information about levee problems, erosion and flood-related risks at the home “with the intent to deceive the Backmans and to encourage them to purchase the property.” It states Backman and his wife wouldn’t have purchased the property had they known about the risks.
It also states Backman “reasonably believed that the stream in front of their land was Kapowsin Creek,” not the Puyallup River, based on maps and information provided prior to purchasing the home.
The complaint also notes that a structural inspection “made no mention of a flooding hazard, an erosion hazard, or the potential of the Puyallup River or Kapowsin Creek to endanger the house or the land.”
Court documents, however, show that the purchase and sale agreement included a disclosure form in which the sellers indicated that “shorelines, wetlands, floodplains or critical areas” were located on the property.
Maloney said there was no reason for Backman to contact the county about potential hazards because there wasn’t evidence pointing to flood problems.
“Only in hindsight does it seem obvious,” he said. “There were no red flags.”
Backman claims Pierce County has tried to save properties on Neadham Road East, located on the opposite side of the river, at the expense of those on the west side of the river bank along Orville Road East.
In 2009, the county took measures to relieve river flows and protect property on the east bank, according to court documents, by redirecting about 30 percent of the flows westward. The work was done three years after a major flood caused a breach of a nearby levee. The county did some work on the damaged levee, but it wasn’t fully repaired
As a result, documents state, water flowed into the Kapowsin Creek channel in front of Backman’s property. He argues it caused “substantial erosion” to the land that supports his home.
After the deck collapsed three years ago, Backman said the county “red tagged” the home. That kept him from repairing or living in it, he said.
Backman said the county expressed interest in purchasing the property in summer 2013, and he and his wife said they would consider a buyout. But he said the county has yet to make an offer and declined his proposed “land swap.”
“It’s been a really disappointing journey in a lot of ways,” he said.
Pierce County denies claims outlined in the complaint. It also states in court documents that unnamed third parties — such as Backman’s Realtor or title insurance company — may be liable.
“What’s happening to his property is the natural process of being adjacent to a channel of the river,” said county spokesman Hunter George.
BUYING UP LAND
The Puyallup River started occupying the Kapowsin Creek channel after the big flood of 2006, said Hans Hunger, capital improvement manager with the county who deals with land acquisitions.
There’s a long history of washed-out levees in that area, he said. In the beginning, the county repaired and replaced them.
But over the past 30 years, officials realized it’s cheaper to buy up property than continue to replace levees that are constantly damaged.
For more than two decades, Hunger said, the county has worked with landowners on a “willing seller” basis, meaning those who voluntarily sell their land. Today, Pierce County owns roughly 2,000 acres in the floodplain on each side of the river. The biggest wave of acquisitions came last year, when the county used $3.2 million in state grant funds to purchase eight properties; six of them have closed so far, Hunger said.
“Our primary purpose is to protect public infrastructure,” Hunger said, adding that the goal is to close public roads in the hazard area.
Despite the county’s efforts to buy up floodplain property, construction permits were granted in the early 2000s for new homes on the Neadham Road side of the river, according to Backman’s complaint.
Hunger acknowledged there was some development around that time, though most homes in the area are more than 40 years old.
The four homes were built after the owner of a single parcel declined to sell to the county and then subdivided it. Hunger said the homes were built before stricter rules were implemented to deter new construction in the floodplain.
All of those homeowners have been offered a buyout, he said, and at least one has sold to the county.
The county has struggled to secure funds for the land; it buys properties when state and federal grants are made available.
Hunger said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation between Backman and the county.
But he said the land at and around Backman’s home is vulnerable to erosion. It is also a flood hazard area.
A key factor is the unpredictable flow of the river, which Hunger said is affected primarily by the high volume of debris in the area.
“It is moving a lot of gravel and wood,” he said. “As it does that, the river naturally wants to move around on the valley floor.”
Hunger said the county looks for ways to contact prospective buyers before they purchase homes in the floodplain. Officials already work with real estate associations, he said, but the hope is to improve outreach.
Maloney said those efforts are too late for his clients.
As for the billboard, Backman said it’s a message to all residents in Pierce County about their government: “You should watch your back.”