A Texas court has dismissed a lawsuit by homeowners near Houston who alleged that their homes were built on a geologic fault line known to the property developer. The Courier of Montgomery County has a report (see: "Judge dismisses Woodlands fault-line suit; homeowners reviewing options," by Catherine Dominguez). "Following a summary judgment in favor of The Woodlands Development Company, homeowners involved in a lawsuit are considering their next step after a four-year battle over damages to their homes that they say were caused by fault lines," the paper reported. "According to the order and final judgment by visiting Judge Randy Wilson in the 359th state District Court in Montgomery County, TWDC’s motion for summary judgment on the statute of repose was granted and that all claims brought by the plaintiffs, some 42 homeowners, were dismissed. The judgment also stated there was no evidence to show breach of warranty, fraud and negligent misrepresentation by TWDC."

A Houston suburb is the site of a legal dispute about who's to blame for house damage caused by slipping geological fault lines.
A Houston suburb is the site of a legal dispute about who's to blame for house damage caused by slipping geological fault lines.

The suit dates back to 2013, when homeowners Gordy and Michelle Bunch sued developer sued The Woodlands Land Development Co. (TWLD) for allegedly building their house on top of an active geological fault line and failing to warn them of the risk of damage. The Houston Chronicle covered the story at the time (see: "Upscale homeowners in The Woodlands sue over fault lines," by Cindy Horswell)." The Woodlands, carved nearly four decades ago from the piney woods, has won accolades as one of the best examples of a master-planned community and for its infusion of 6,000 acres of green space," the Chronical reported. "But now Gordy Bunch - one of seven directors overseeing the Woodlands township, the area's governing body - and his wife, Michelle, are suing The Woodlands Land Development Co., claiming it failed to disclose what's being called a dirty little secret about the community they love. The lawsuit contends some homeowners have unwittingly been sold upscale houses atop shaky ground - five active fault lines cross the 43-square-mile community north of Houston... These surface faults slip or creep a quarter to a half inch a year, destabilizing homes perched on top of them and causing thousands of dollars in damage to walls, floors, plumbing and pools, homeowners say."

For the record, the developers say they checked out the home site's geology and didn't find a fault line under it, or nearby. But the Bunch suit against TWDL was tossed last month on procedural grounds, not on a question of fact: Texas has a ten-year statute of repose that bars lawsuits for construction defects if the home is more than ten years old, irrespective of the underlying issues in the suit.

But what's this about fault lines in Texas? That's not earthquake country, is it? No it isn't — but even so, the area does have geologic faults that cause slow slippage in the ground, and over time, the faults can cause slow-motion damage to roads, pipelines, and house foundations. Two University of Houston researchers, Shuhab Khan and Richard Engelkemeir, raised the issue's profile in 2008 when they released a careful study of FEMA LIDAR ground-sensing laser rangefinder data for the Houston area, created as part of FEMA's effort to redraw flood elevation maps. The new precise data enabled Khan and Engelkemeir to identify the locations of a whole network of fault lines surrounding the Houston Area. The University of Houston reports on the pair's study here (see: "On Shaky Ground: UH Prof Finds Geological Faults Threaten Houston," by Lisa Merkl).

"After finding more than 300 surface faults in Harris County, a University of Houston geologist now has information that could be vitally useful to the region's builders and city planners," UH reported. "This information - the most accurate and comprehensive of its kind - was discovered by Shuhab Khan, assistant professor of geology, and Richard Engelkemeir, a geology Ph.D. student, using advanced radar-like laser technology. Although geologists have long known of the existence of faults in Southeast Texas, only recently have UH researchers produced a comprehensive map pinpointing the locations of the faults [see map below]."

A wrinkly pattern of surface fault lines cuts across Houston, Texas, and vicinity, reflecting deeper faults in the underlying geology of the area and posing a risk of slow-motion damage for builders and property owners.
A wrinkly pattern of surface fault lines cuts across Houston, Texas, and vicinity, reflecting deeper faults in the underlying geology of the area and posing a risk of slow-motion damage for builders and property owners.

"While the ground moving beneath Houstonians feet is not felt at the magnitude of recent earthquakes in San Antonio and Illinois, this shaky ground could mean trouble for buildings, roads and pipelines located on one of these hundreds of faults traversing the region's surface," UH reported. "These shifting fault lines originated millions of years ago during the formation of the Gulf of Mexico," Khan said. "While they are not the kinds that wreak havoc in earthquake-prone California and now the Midwest, they can move up to 1 inch a year, causing serious damage over the course of several years to buildings and streets that straddle a fault line. Additionally, structures on the subsiding side of the fault line could be more susceptible to flooding due to the lower elevation over time."