It appears to be the beginning of the end for one Northwest San Antonio neighborhood’s drama-filled, turbulent journey.

This month, builder and developer Centex completed a new rock-clad retaining wall between the Rivermist and Hills of Rivermist neighborhoods, and the city has started the process of inspecting and issuing certificates of occupancy for most of the 27 homes that have been evacuated and empty since Jan. 24, 2010.

So far, four homes have received the OK from city inspectors for residents to return.

More than 17 months ago, police and firefighters swarmed the hilly neighborhoods, issuing evacuation orders to the owners of 91 homes after huge fault lines opened in backyards, a retaining wall crumbled and air-conditioning units tore away from homes.

Following a lengthy design process that involved the city of San Antonio and the homeowners association, which technically owns the wall, Centex’s contractors started building the new 1,700-foot wall in December.

“I’m not sure excited is the right word, but we’re happy to see it to completion,” said Laurin Darnell, division president for Centex in San Antonio. “It looks outstanding.”

Centex has estimated the cost of the wall construction, home repurchases, hotel rooms and rental homes for evacuated residents and security guards to monitor the empty houses at around $10 million.

The first four homes with new certificates of occupancy are on Treewell Glen and belong to residents who opted to keep their homes. Darnell said they likely will return to the neighborhood in the next few weeks.

The builder repurchased 22 of the evacuated homes — an offer it made when it appeared that owners would be displaced for a long time.

The remaining homeowner still hopes to return to the neighborhood. He lives in one of the three homes closest to the slope failure. Those homes had what appeared to be an earthquake in the backyard and required emergency foundation work, and the builder still is evaluating what to do with them.

“It was right at the curve,” said. Roderick Sanchez, director of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department. “That was where you really saw the ground come out from under them. They want to evaluate those. That’s a little bit more complicated.”

Darnell said that engineers are evaluating the homes, but they do not show any signs of “distress.” “There is the ability to go in and repair them as is,” Darnell said. “The slope has been stabilized; the wall has been fixed. The homes are very structurally sound. We are evaluating the full gambit. Do you repair them in place or tear them down and rebuild them?”

Centex is continuing to work with the city to get certificates of occupancy on the remaining homes, Darnell said.

Around August, the builder likely will put up for sale three or four of the homes it repurchased at a time. “We’ll work through a sales strategy for how we release those for sales,” Darnell said.

Even in more conventional sales situations, builders don’t release all of their homes for sale at once, but instead dribble them out to buyers based on what the market can handle.

Prices in the Hills of Rivermist neighborhood start in the low $200,000 range, and the builder still has about 20 vacant lots left to build. Rivermist, the original section of the development, is built out.

And Centex still has to complete landscaping on the wall. The company has extensive landscaping plans, but because of the drought and watering restrictions, has opted to not try to plant large trees until around October. “The heat is just so oppressing and they require so much water,” Darnell said.

Before Rivermist, local officials had paid scant attention to retaining walls in subdivisions. But the wall failure changed the way the city and Bexar County approach retaining wall construction — something that has become more prevalent as development has pushed into the Hill Country.

The Rivermist wall did not have a permit, but that was no aberration. Although the local residential building code requires a permit and engineering plans for retaining walls more than 4 feet high, in practice it turned out that virtually no retaining walls in neighborhoods had such permits.

The City Council late last year added retaining wall regulations to the Unified Development Code because it’s usually developers who build the retaining walls, not home builders.

As part of the platting process, the county now asks for the wall’s engineering design, proposed grading plan and, once it’s complete, the engineer’s certification.

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