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Homeowners' Suits Pile Up as Their Land Slides Away

August 24, 1986|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

ROLLING HILLS — By anyone's standards, it ought to be a dream home, built on two acres in a rustic setting off Portuguese Bend Road, complete with tennis court, golf putting green and a spectacular ocean view.

But owner Howard Slusher, a lawyer and an agent for top professional athletes, lives a nightmare existence within a regal setting, according to his attorney, David Rudy .

"He can go in and have a roof over his head, but every day he can hear the movement and see the roofline sinking," Rudy said. "The tennis court torques and retaining walls are tipping over."

Slusher's home in the hilly Flying Triangle area overlooking the Portuguese Bend coastline is slowly being torn apart by a landslide that was first detected six years ago and one that some geology experts believe has grown to encompass 88 acres in Rolling Hills and Rancho Palos Verdes. Five homes in Rolling Hills have been destroyed and at least six have been seriously undermined.

That slide, in turn, has piled up a mountain of lawsuits by Slusher and 40 others who are owners or former owners of 21 Flying Triangle properties.

Ancient Slide Area

They claim to be the victims of agencies and firms that permitted homes to be built in what has been identified as an ancient slide area, and who control water drainage into the canyons that owners contend is the major contributor to the landslide.

Defendants include the city, the Rolling Hills Community Assn., Los Angeles County and the county Flood Control District, California Water Service, and two engineering firms, Maurseth, Howe & Lockwood and Lockwood & Singh.

For their part, defense attorneys contend that extremely heavy rainfall in the late 1970s saturated the ground and reactivated slides that had existed since prehistoric times. One attorney labeled it an "act of God."

Doug Elwell , the county counsel handling the Flying Triangle case, said all of the defendants believe that construction of homes and maintenance of drains "was done on a reasonable basis, with reasonable knowledge and prudence, " based on the geological data available.

The suits, some of them dating from 1981, have been consolidated and are awaiting trial in Torrance Superior Court unless they are settled in conferences ordered by Judge George R. Perkovich Jr.

While most attorneys in the case declined to speculate about the chances of a settlement, Rudy said he believes it is unlikely. Meetings so far have failed to settle any of the cases; another meeting is scheduled for Monday.

If the case goes to trial, attorneys predict it will last for several months because of the number of people involved and the complex scientific testimony that will be required.

The plaintiffs are seeking in excess of $20 million in damages. Their properties were worth between $500,000 and $1 million apiece before the landslide began, according to Judy Johnson, an attorney representing two of the property owners.

Some property owners also sued each other for liability in connection with the slide, but Johnson said most have been dismissed. "Obviously, this has caused hard feelings in the community, but the plaintiffs are now united," Johnson said.

Water Dumped

Although the case once centered on the contention that the landslide was triggered by construction of three homes in the Flying Triangle in the late 1970s, the focus has since shifted to whether excessive amounts of water were dumped into Klondike Canyon from a drain on Crest Road near Portuguese Bend Road, producing erosion that caused the slide.

Ron Beck, an attorney with the law firm that represents most of the property owners, asserted that a drain "owned and controlled" by the city and the association was modified in the 1970s, resulting in the dumping of water into Klondike that ordinarily would have gone elsewhere.

Johnson said this water caused erosion in the canyon "which resulted in loss of support and caused the slide to start."

But City Atty. Michael Jenkins countered by saying that the slide is too large for the land movement to have been caused by "a little water trickling down a canyon."

Ted Armbruster, attorney for the association, said the Crest drain has been maintained by the association and perhaps the city, but he said it contributes an "insignificant" amount of water to Klondike.

Cross-Complaint Filed

For its part, the association, which maintains roads and other community facilities in private and gated Rolling Hills, has filed a cross-complaint against the property owners, asserting that water from their septic tanks has contributed to the landslide.

"Water is the primary factor in causing the slide. . . . and homeowners' use of septic systems clearly places these additional waters into the slide plane," Armbruster said.

The issue of home construction remains a part of the case, according to attorneys for the property owners, although Johnson said the theory that grading and construction might have activated the slide "has pretty much been dismissed by all parties."

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