Fissure

Joan Etzenhouser’s pets explore a hole that is perhaps 11 feet deep on her property in San Tan Valley.

SAN TAN VALLEY — Joan Etzenhouser likes where she lives, near the base of a mountain and a view of the Valley. The trouble is “it’s property I can never sell.”

Eighteen months after she moved here in 2004, three fissures appeared on her property following heavy rainfall. One runs under the house. It’s hard to judge their depth, but she was once able to probe one of them with a 10-foot piece of rebar without hitting the bottom.

She lives east of the intersection of Sossamon Road and Hunt Highway, less than a mile from the Maricopa County line. She’s currently awaiting an inspection by the Pinal County Assessor’s Office that she hopes will result in a permanent property tax reduction.

Her water line, which crosses a fissure, has broken twice and now her driveway is starting to collapse. She has posted two videos of her fissures online.

The land’s fissure potential presumably escaped the attention of the real estate agent who sold the property and Pinal County, which approved the building permit. Neither the county nor the agent did due diligence, “and I am paying for it,” Etzenhouser said.

She said dirt was excavated off her property in the 1940s to build runways at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. Decades later, there is still no topsoil, just caliche and granite. She said neighbors to the northeast, south and west have brought in tons of dirt to compensate; when it rains, she sometimes gets both water and mud.

Monsoon storms can widen the fissures, but none of them appears to have gotten bigger following recent rains. She once poured 20 cubic yards of concrete slurry into the biggest hole near the street, and “there’s a good possibility it won’t get worse.”

Her house, a manufactured home, has cracking in various parts that she believes is due to both natural settling and the fissure. One of her neighbors is currently building a workshop directly on top of a fissure. She thinks he’s taking a chance, although “he could be fortunate and nothing ever happens.”

The major cause of fissures in her area, according to the experts she has consulted, is groundwater depletion.

“Subsidence and earth fissures are geological events that are accelerated by man through a long-term extraction of groundwater,” according to the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center.

The paper says there are two places in southern Arizona where groundwater levels have dropped more than 500 feet. One is southwest of Casa Grande near Stanfield, and the other is south of Chandler near Chandler Heights, which is Etzenhouser’s neighborhood.

Etzenhouser recommends that anyone buying land try to find the property on the Arizona Geological Survey’s fissure maps.

More than 10 years ago, Etzenhouser tried to sue the real estate agents who represented her and the sellers when she bought the property.

Her evidence included an affidavit from a hydrologist who said the property “may have been known to be in or near an area of earth fissure hazards as early as 1962”; an affidavit from another real estate broker, who said it would have been “reasonably expected” for anyone dealing in land in the Queen Creek area to know about fissures; and the Department of Real Estate issuing two bulletins about fissures “to all licensed Realtors in Arizona.”

But Pinal County Superior Court Judge William O’Neil threw out the case, as did the Arizona Court of Appeals. Appellate Judge Garye Vasquez said that without a confession, it is virtually impossible to prove someone had actual knowledge of a particular fact.

Etzenhouser remains interested in suing if any attorney is willing to take her case free of charge.

She is currently awaiting an inspection by a member of the Pinal County Assessor’s Office for a permanent 60% property tax reduction. She said she actually received such a reduction years ago retroactive to 2006. But someone in Pinal County government “dropped the ball” and it was never put into effect. She didn’t notice because her property value was already plummeting in the Great Recession.

She’s now hoping for a permanent property tax reduction retroactive to 2017, which she said is apparently the best she can get at this time.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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