Geology Peer Review

October 18, 2010

At the COWncil’s September 14th meeting, Town Engineer Paul Nagengast submitted a report about the Town’s practice of requiring a peer review of all geologic and geotechnical reports submitted with building plans. This important issue is part of the larger discussion the Town government and its residents have been having regarding geological regulations in Woodside and so it elicited a lot of discussion from the COWncil.

California law generally doesn’t require peer review of geotechnical reports. Woodside, however, makes peer review mandatory. During the August recess, the Town held an informational meeting with geotechnical engineers to get feedback on the Town’s policy of requiring the review. Comments from these experts that were included in Paul’s report to the COWncil were in favor of the current policy due to Woodside’s complicated geology. Quotes from these engineers included that out-of-area consultants are not familiar with Woodside geology and thus do not provide thorough reports. It was suggested that the Town should provide a checklist for a minimal level of review or standards that a geotechnical report should include. Staff wanted the COWncil to weigh in on the practice and authorize them to bring forward an ordinance to “formally codify” the Town’s policy which would come to the COWncil along with other geology regulations later this year.

The COWncil used the opportunity of this report to discuss what they’ve heard from Town citizens and contractors, as well as their own concerns about what information they need to really get a handle on the upcoming geology regulations. COWncil member Dave Tanner took a leading role in the discussion, explaining just how complicated and unique Woodside’s geology is. Parts of the Whiskey Hill formation underlies Woodside, which Dave characterized as being unstable. He recalled houses that had shifted six to eighteen inches due to the soils of the formation. He also said that there were at least half a dozen different soil types in Woodside, all of which act differently which is the reason why outside geologists can have a hard time accurately determining how soils are going to behave in our Town.

Despite the complex nature of our geology, real questions over the utility of requiring the peer review were raised by both Paul and COWncil members. Paul wondered aloud whether the COWncil wanted to continue requiring the policy for all structures, or just homes and other human habitable structures. He asked, “Do we care if a pool fails?” He clarified, “We care… but enough to require peer review?”

COWncil member Barbara Gordon was also cautious about the policy, stating that the general public wants to know why they have to pay twice; once to their own geology expertand again for peer review. Council member Ron Romines said that his preference was to continue to require the peer review, at least for structures meant for human habitation, for safety reasons.

There was reference to a recent claim filed with the Town of Atherton by a resident who alleged that the geology review process in that town was severely flawed, and that there are serious problems with her home that she alleges Atherton staff should have caught. The possibility of Woodside being liable for such a problem was discussed as a real concern, although out attorney Jean Savaree stated, “Anyone can sue anyone for anything,” and that the there are several laws protecting the Town from a judgment in a case like that.

Also brought up was concern over the recent catastrophic natural gas explosion in San Bruno and the question of whether there are any such pipelines in Woodside. Dave Tanner confirmed there is at least one. The COWncil expressed frustration over the lack of a really good geology map for our Town. Various suggestions to fix this were put forth including: to have a geology graduate student pore through already existing geology reports and entering information on soil conditions into a database: to having Town staff enter such information into Trak-It for future projects thus building a database piecemeal going forward; and to sitting down with the geologists who’ve been practicing in Woodside for years and trying to build a map from their personal notes.

The COWncil asked for more information. We are definitely going to hear a lot more about geology in our Town this fall. We think building an accurate data base is an important first step. Providing information and standards will help unfamiliar geotechnical engineers focus on the real issues. Peer review is a valuable tool but it should not be over used. Clearly, it is not necessary for all structures. There needs to be a risk assessment of the type of project and circumstances under which peer review will be required before the peer review requirement is codified. The peer reviewer should continue to be a geologist on contract with the Town who is familiar with the Town geology but who does not represent clients in the Town.

One Comment on “Geology Peer Review

  1. Anonymous

    No, sorry, not a good idea.
    This is not in the citizens best interest. This is the town at its worst developing self servicing policy. This type of CYA policy development leads poorly defined requirements. The town should provide a clear set of requirements for projects and owners should expect that if they meet those requirements, they have fulfilled their obligation to the town. The town has a geologist that is paid to do a job, we have requirements for building, and that is that.

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