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Homeowners vow to 'not back down' in legal battle with Billings water district over leaking canal

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Posted at 6:15 PM, Jun 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-04 20:58:09-04

BILLINGS — A group of Billings homeowners living directly under the Billings canal have filed a lawsuit against the Billings Bench Water Association after they say a constant leak in the canal has massively damaged homes and caused financial ruin.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven homeowners living on Vuecrest Drive against the water district in an ongoing fight over who is responsible for damage to the homes caused by water seepage coming from a repeated leak in the canal.

The homeowners are asking that the Billings Bench Water Association take responsibility for the damage by purchasing all seven properties. They say their homes are now worthless or unlivable.

MTN Investigates first reported on the controversy in the summer and fall of 2019 when homeowners first voiced their concerns publicly.

That’s when neighbors took our cameras inside their homes. The damage consists of massive cracks to the foundation, evidence of the ground moving around and under the homes. Also, sheetrock inside the homes is buckling and falling from the ceiling, among other problems.

Now, many of the homeowners have moved out, such as Charlie and Shari Groscop, who say they are renting an apartment with their kids that costs $300 more a month than what their mortgage was. At this point, they can’t recoup the cost of their home.

”It’s a nightmare. It really has been a nightmare,” said Shari Groscop.

Tuesday, the seven plaintiffs in the lawsuit again gathered on Vuecrest Drive to see how the water damage to their homes has rendered their properties worthless.

The Groscops were forced out of their home in July of 2019. Same with their neighbor Don Kaiser, whose home has likely the most damage with a crack in the foundation big enough to place his hand through.

Down the way, Doug and Ruth Egan- who are on a fixed income- say they’re losing about $14,000 a year in rental income after their renter moved out last August from the damage.

“I am not going to rent it to someone if I am not going to live in it,” said Doug Egan.

They, just like the others, say now their home is worth nothing to sell.

“Who is going to buy it from us?” said Ruth. “Nobody would ever live on this street again,” she said.

The Billings Bench Water Association has acknowledged there’s been a leak in the canal and made repairs to that section of the canal the fall of 2019.

Repairs were also made again in the winter and spring of 2020, according to Gary Davis with the water district.

However Davis says there’s no way the Billings Bench Water Association can possibly take responsibility for the damages to the homes.

Davis declined to speak to MTN Investigates about the lawsuit in length and declined to do an on-camera interview, saying he doesn’t want the issue to “play out in the public.”

However, he did say the issue is a matter of gravity and that any structural damage that’s happened to the homes below the canal are because the homes shouldn’t have been built in the area in the first place.

Davis also said the Vuecrest homes “destabilized the hill on their own when they were built and have caused their own problem.”

But the plaintiffs in the case say they have an extensive timeline of events on their side.

According to court documents, the plaintiffs alleged that when the homes were built in the early 2000s, an engineering report said there was no evidence of water or moisture at the site of the build.

But then in 2018, all of a sudden there was evidence of water seepage. Then in 2019, the water seepage became increasingly worse and the homeowners on Vuecrest started to notice extreme damage to their homes.

By the fall of that year, the water district did repairs to the canal in the area above the homes. However, a stress crack formed near the canal, prompting the homeowners and their lawyers to draw attention to city leaders with an engineering report that suggested if the canal was not maintained a “potentially catastrophic event could occur.”

Plaintiffs' attorney John Heenan says that dangerous potential for collapse of the area has always been a fear.

"I just pray that there's no further catastrophe,” said Heenan. “I mean, it wouldn't take much now to cause a blowout."

Heenan says the principle of the law on the plaintiff’s side is also simple: You break it, you buy it.

"It goes back to the fundamental principals of accountability,” he said.

By the winter of 2020, the ditch was empty and Davis says that’s when water district crews did more repairs.

But in the spring another leak sprang. Davis said the water was subsequently turned off, and the canal was fixed one more time and eventually the water leak stopped.

Now, homeowners like Rob and Cynthia Wiens say they’re fed up.

While the Wiens are still living in their home on Vuecrest, they’ve been forced to make repairs too. That includes cracks in their cement steps leading up to their home, cracks in their walls in their basement and even the backyard fence, which collapsed when the ground moved.

And all the while, all the homeowners say their properties are now worth nothing to try to sell.

“It’s not as easy as everybody thinks, (that) you can just stop paying it,” said Shari Groscop. “They just come and take it and be done with it.”

The Groscops say they’ve stopped making their mortgage payments and have seen their future take a toll along with their credit.

“We are pretty much buckled down for the long haul. I mean, we kind of have to be,” said Charlie Groscop.

MTN Investigates did reach out to the insurance lawyer for the Billings Bench Water Association and will update this story with a response.

For now, Heenan said the lawsuit is moving ahead with a trial date of April 2021.