The California Coastal Commission has approved in concept an ambitious plan to prevent further landslide damage in a Pacific Palisades canyon, despite criticism from nearby residents who say the project may not protect their homes and certainly will destroy a rare natural area.
Coastal commissioners, meeting in Marina del Rey last week, voted 7 to 3 to allow the city of Los Angeles to install a $1.8-million storm drain system in Potrero Canyon, where water runoff has contributed to slides and erosion. Since 1933, about a dozen houses built along the cliffs have fallen into the canyon, which is about 3,500 feet long, 400 feet wide and 265 feet deep.
Commissioners decided to get more information on additional city plans to further stabilize the canyon with 1 million cubic yards of dirt piled 75 feet high and to build a park and public trails on the fill. They indicated, however, that the rest of the project probably will be authorized eventually.
Over the last three years, the city has paid about $8 million to settle lawsuits by buying 22 homes along the canyon rim, said Deputy City Atty. Leslie R. Pinchuk. The city has rented the houses to tenants, Pinchuk said.
Owners of four other properties also are suing the city and "I have had inquiries from others fronting on that canyon wanting to know if the city is interested in purchasing the property and there is a veiled threat behind that," Pinchuk said.
He told the Coastal Commission, "We think that if nothing is done with that canyon, it would be very imprudent."
The drainage system, he said, will be the most important step in preventing further damage. Work is expected to begin in April and be finished in October before the rainy season, said Joel Breitbart, assistant general manager of the city's Recreation and Parks Department. The entire project would take about three years, Breitbart said.
The canyon floor will be raised with 10 feet of fill during installation of the drains.
The additional 65 feet of fill "would greatly benefit the situation," Pinchuk said. And creation of the park would partially restore the vegetation disturbed by the stabilization efforts. But he agreed with Coastal Commission geologist Richard McCarthy's assessment that "you can't solve the problem there. Even after the whole thing is finished, it's not a 100% solution."
Potrero Canyon is home now to willow trees, coastal sagebrush, coyotes, raccoons, great horned owls, mockingbirds and mourning doves.
Dissenting coastal commissioners said the wildlife should not be displaced for a project that might not end the geological problems around the canyon.
"I'm against sacrificing Potrero Canyon," said Commissioner Robert Franco. Commissioners Michael Wornum and Madelyn Glickfeld also voted against the proposal. Glickfeld was serving as alternate for Commissioner Duane Garrett.
But Commissioner Dorrill Wright disagreed. "You've got homes in danger," he said. "If this was a pristine canyon, we wouldn't think of allowing this kind of grading. But this isn't what we have."
Pinchuk, of the city attorney's office, said, "As things stand now, that canyon is going to become a blight on the community. Visually, it's not aesthetic. You can see foundations of destroyed houses crumbling into the canyon."
Neighbors criticizing the plan said they do not want to lose the wildlife, but they also worry that the project could cause pollution and open their clifftop community to trespassers.
The storm drain is planned to empty into the sea at Will Rogers State Beach, near two others where signs warning of high bacteria counts are posted. "We fear that this drain will carry out more pollutants from animal feces," said Adele Carter, who has lived on the canyon's west side for 1 1/2 years.
And, she added that the canyon is now inaccessible, but with park trails it "will not be easy to patrol. It will be easy for criminals to approach the neighborhood and for people to throw rocks at the hills and cause more landslides."
Neighbors also objected to a proposal to route dirt-hauling trucks along Pacific Palisades streets to the top of the canyon. So coastal commissioners ruled that trucks must enter from Pacific Coast Highway, between Temescal and Santa Monica canyons.
"I think the impacts have been underestimated and the disruption has been underestimated," said Frances Shalant, who represented the Pacific Palisades Residents Assn. at the hearing.
The association has not taken a stand on the project because its directors disagree among themselves, Shalant said. But, she added, "It looks like there sure are a lot of unanswered questions that aren't going to get answered. I'm disappointed."