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Left High and Dry Above Paradise Cove : Outside the County System, Hilltop Dwellers Must Bring In Own Water

October 06, 1985|JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writer

A couple of weeks ago, Lee Loughnane, who plays trumpet in the rock band "Chicago," embarked on a familiar routine. He made the 45-minute drive from his house in western Malibu to the U-Rent in Camarillo.

There, he leased a 1,500-gallon water tanker for $135 a day. He drove the truck back to his neighborhood, where Winding Way and DeButts Terrace rise above Paradise Cove.

He went to his assigned county fire hydrant, about a mile from his house, and used a pipe wrench to open it. He filled the truck, while a meter recorded how much water he took so he could be billed later.

He drove the truck to his house. He transferred the water to his 10,000-gallon storage tank.

Then he went back to the hydrant, again and again, until his tank was full. After nearly eight hours of work, he was free to return the truck to Camarillo and retrieve his car.

Learning the Limits

"That should be enough water for two to four months," Loughnane said. "I should be good through most of the winter."

The water run was not included in the easy life Loughnane envisioned seven years ago when he built his lavish house, complete with recording studio, solar energy and a sweeping view of the Pacific.

But like the dozen neighbors living in the 500-acre area, and dozens more who own property there but are not allowed to build, Loughnane is learning the limits of life with no steady source of water--a basic commodity that even the poorest urban families take for granted.

In some cases, property owners face the inconvenience and expense of importing water by truck or private pipeline. Others say they have lost investments worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Want Assessment District

Ever since saltwater intrusion ruined the local wells in the mid-1970s, the Winding Way area residents have been trying to get a county water system in place. A majority of them signed a petition for an assessment district, giving the county authority to build a system of pipes, a 267,000-gallon storage tank and a service road. The county would then collect the costs from all of the owners there--whether they are celebrities like Loughnane and actor Stacy Keach, or longtime residents of modest means, or middle-aged businessmen who invested their life's savings in their land.

But each year, something else caused a delay. Revised schedules were issued, listing new completion dates: Sept. 30, 1982; Feb. 29, 1984; Nov. 1, 1985. Two weeks ago, the county announced that the system would be finished in May, 1987.

For those, like Loughnane, who came up with temporary solutions, the sense of adventure is great. Even with careful scheduling of how often clothes can be laundered and toilets flushed, residents have been known to run dry in the middle of a shower. Landscaping has withered away; resident Marilyn Cann recalls that her yard at one time resembled "a bad Salvador Dali painting. The plants were still here but they were all brown."

Still, such accounts pale before those of the property owners who did not construct their houses before 1981. That year, the county Fire Department decided on a new policy of denying building permits in areas without proper water and access. Fire officials explained that the department did not want to authorize structures that they could not defend if the surrounding mountain brush were ablaze.

"It's a Catch-22," said Larry Tint, president of the Winding Way-DeButts Terrace Property Owners Assn. "The Fire Department won't let them build until there's water, and the county hasn't brought in the water system."

As a result, two families live in trailers because they cannot rebuild their homes, which were destroyed by flames in 1982.

Others, like architect Herbert Kolischer, continue paying property taxes for land they cannot develop. "It's $1,500 a year," said Kolischer, 60. "I never go over there." He decided the expense was not worth it and has put his lot on the market "but nobody wants to buy it," he said.

Daniel Lieber, a Santa Monica oncologist, got so tired of waiting for water that he donated the site he had picked for his dream house to Pepperdine University and bought a place in West Los Angeles.

'Substantial Loss'

And James Gillen, a Marina del Rey attorney, reached an agreement last month that allowed him--at "a substantial loss," he said--to get out of his contract to buy 2 1/2 acres on Winding Way.

Two years earlier, Gillen had hosted a ground-breaking party at the lot, where 100 guests drank champagne toasts to his plans for a four-bedroom house with a 180-degree view of sea and hills. "I tried to tell him then it wasn't going to be as soon as he thought it was," Tint said.

This week, the county Board of Supervisors is expected to authorize a request for bids on the water project--the furthest the process has ever gone.

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