'Our money is all tied up in . . . a house nobody in their right mind would buy.' --Shirley Gable, homeowner
In the 1970s, the grassy slopes that ascend into the Puente Hills in Hacienda Heights seemed the perfect place to build clusters of expensive homes, each affording a spectacular view of the San Gabriel Valley and mountains in the distance.
But three years ago, a slow-moving landslide twisted apart the foundations of three $200,000 homes on Montellano Avenue at the base of one slope. The owners received a settlement totaling more than $1 million and moved on, leaving behind only a pile of rubble and iron grillwork.
That was not the end of the slow-motion slide.
Today, the slide is creating gaping cracks in the foundations and walls of several other homes; one house in its path has been condemned, and an unknown number are threatened.
Shirley and Louis Gable are among those whose lives have been thrust into limbo by the ever-growing slide.
The Gables had planned to retire by now. But their luxury five-bedroom home sits in the path of the slide, and they are unable to sell it.
"My husband recently had quadruple bypass surgery and he would like to retire and move on, but we can't," said Shirley Gable, a real estate broker.
"We had hoped to move to Denver to be with relatives there, but we can't do that. Our money is all tied up in this house, a house nobody in their right mind would buy."
About three dozen homeowners and Los Angeles County are suing Great Western Financial Corp. and Great Western Savings, the neighborhood's current developer, claiming that it is responsible for the drifting slide. The suits also name Financial Federation Inc., the original developer; the general contractor, and several subcontractors.
In response to the county's suit, Great Western has filed a cross-complaint against the county, arguing that the county failed to ensure that the original developer followed building and land-grading regulations.
Despite extensive testing by geologists and soil engineers hired by the homeowners, the county and Great Western, the slide's exact cause and scope are unclear.
In the coming months, attorneys for Great Western and the county say they hope to devise a plan to cure the problem.
Already, Great Western and the county have begun a joint effort to drain the ground water from beneath the hillside. After that, one solution may be to dramatically reshape the hill--a project that could mean bulldozing half a dozen or more homes along Heatherfield Drive above the slide.
If the movement is not stopped, Thomas Rubbert, an attorney for the homeowners, says that more than a dozen houses on Heatherfield and Montellano could be destroyed, and many others damaged.
Six Lawsuits Pending
Meanwhile, six separate lawsuits are moving slowly through the courts, five of them filed by Rubbert.
"Our feeling is that we are at the mercy of Great Western," said Frank Brady, whose spacious four-bedroom home on Heatherfield Drive is likely to be torn down if Great Western restructures the hill below.
"We ask them if there is a plan, or do they know yet which homes are going to have to come out," Brady said. "They just say, 'No.' We've heard everything from three homes to 12 homes will have to go."
Brady, a retired A T & T executive, said he wants to spend his retirement years in his comfortable home perched high on the hill.
For him, the house was his American dream, "so beautiful and unique, like sitting on top of a 30-story apartment building. You just aren't going to find this view anywhere else, and for me that's kind of sad."
While the homeowners, county and Great Western wrangle over who is to blame, Montellano Avenue at the base of the slide remains impassable, covered by more than a ton of dirt that the county and Great Western are reluctant to clean up.
No Cleanup Intended
Both sides say that moving the dirt could set off a chain reaction that could send even more earth and rock into the street and eat away an increasingly wider chunk of the hill.
Although geologists are still trying to determine how to stop the slide, they believe it was set off largely by natural ground water that was not properly diverted from beneath the steep slope before homes were built at its top and its base. The neighborhood was developed in the mid-1970s by Financial Federation, later bought out by Great Western.
Geologists for both sides say the neighborhood is underlain by an earthquake fault, and sits atop fill dirt that was packed into the high canyons to create flat parcels for houses and yards.
In addition, Rubbert says the former developers "squeezed three more homes onto Montellano Avenue" by cutting into the bottom of the slope to make flat parcels. That action, Rubbert says, further undermined the steep hill. The three homes were destroyed by the slide.