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THAT SINKING FEELING : They bought homes next to a Duarte golf course that used to be a landfill. And then the ground slipped, the street buckled, walls cracked. Now 10 of them are suing the city and the developer.

August 16, 1987|SUE AVERY

When Gene Astuto moved into a new house across from the Rancho Duarte Golf Course in 1980, he could park his car on the street and walk right up to his front door. Now he has to walk slightly uphill, choosing his path carefully so he won't step into any of the deep cracks in his lawn.

Several years ago, he abandoned plans to install a barbecue and spa in his backyard. The yard is so deeply rutted now that he almost never goes outside, and he has let his lawn go to weeds.

"I would never have bought if I had a hint something like this would happen," said Astuto, who says that the land under the four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath home for which he paid $115,000 is falling away from the foundation.

Like several of his neighbors, Astuto believes that his home was built too close to the former landfill on which the golf course was built. The homes are on Rancho Road just south of the golf course, and on Hacienda Drive just east of the golf course.

In a suit against the builder of the homes and the City of Duarte, 10 of the homeowners claim that the continued settling of the decomposed rubbish is damaging their property.

The homeowners contend that the unstable land has caused deep fissures to develop in their yards, creating hazards and lowering property values. Several homeowners have complained of structural damage, including cracks in exterior walls.

Homeowners also claim that methane gas has escaped from under the former landfill, despite the presense of a gas collection and disposal system installed by the city in 1980, and is leaking under the houses, endangering residents' health.

The suit, filed in 1985, seeks more than $800,000 each for the homeowners to compensate them for damage to their homes and emotional stress.

"They (the homeowners) knew when they bought that they were adjacent to a dump, but what they didn't know was that their properties were sitting on a trash fill," said Joseph Liebman, attorney for the homeowners.

"The houses are sitting there and the ground is falling away from them," Liebman said.

Although both the city and the builder, Kaufman and Broad, acknowledge some problems involving fissures and have taken steps to remedy them, neither accepts full responsibility.

"We feel this is an aesthetic problem that can be solved, and we have done that," said John Cygul, director of corporate communications for Kaufman and Broad, which offered in 1984 to inject sand under pressure into the ground cracks. Only one homeowner accepted.

The city bought the closed landfill in 1978, covered it with soil and began work on a redevelopment project that included the nine-hole golf course and 122 homes.

But problems with the site came to light even before Kaufman and Broad began construction on the project.

The 32-acre, 40-foot-deep gravel pit was used as a disposal site for household trash from 1964 to 1971, when it was closed because it had reached capacity.

During site preparation, Kaufman and Broad discovered that the landfill was larger than Duarte had thought. The firm proceeded in its efforts to determine the boundaries and, in conjunction with the city, made what it thought were appropriate adjustments, said Edwin Mann of Kinkle, Rodiger and Spriggs, attorneys for the city. The major change involved adding extra soil to the site at city expense.

By the time it sold the homes, Cygul said, Kaufman and Broad thought the adjustments were behind them.

"We never thought there would be problems on the properties," he said.

But problems began to appear soon after homeowners began moving into the development.

Astuto said the lawn had been installed when he bought his home. He put in some trees and bushes, and all went well for a time.

Astuto cannot pinpoint the date, but he said large cracks began to appear in his front yard, which then sank down and toward Rancho Road. He continued to tend his garden until the cracking unearthed and broke his sprinkler system.

"I thought, 'To hell with it.' " Astuto said. "I lost interest in the whole house."

Kaufman and Broad commissioned engineering studies, and a report prepared for the firm in 1983 showed that cracks had appeared on 13 home sites at or parallel to the landfill boundary.

The report stated that while no structural damage to homes had been found, continued settlement, if unchecked, could cause such damage.

"When (the cracking problems) were discovered, we jumped in there to try to solve them," Cygul said.

But only one of the 13 homeowners with problems accepted the sand injection offer, which included a suggestion that homeowners follow up by topping off the cracks periodically with sand that the city would provide.

The others balked at a provision requiring them to sign a memorandum of understanding that they interpreted as waiving their rights to legal action against future problems involving the cracks.

Since then, Kaufman and Broad has settled with two other homeowners for undisclosed amounts, leaving 10 parties to the lawsuit.

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