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Landslide Settlement Calls for Homeowners to Share $5 Million

September 13, 1987|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

It was in 1978 that William Griffin first noticed the telltale cracks in Palos Verdes Drive South. The land underneath was slowly sliding away.

A year later, he and 46 other homeowners in the Abalone Cove area sued Los Angeles County and the City of Rancho Palos Verdes.

In the eight years since the suit was filed, nearly 50 homes have been damaged and property values have plummeted in the 80-acre slide area, where many homes with spectacular ocean views lie behind security gates along tree-lined streets.

Normally, Griffin acknowledged, the announcement last week that the city and county had accepted a settlement proposal would be cause for celebration.

But Griffin said his ordeal has gone on so long--with so many ups and downs in the legal process and stops and starts of the land movement--that he has become numbed, burned out. "Absolutely," he said.

"My reaction is not to comment until the thing is signed," he said in an interview. "We've been in a settlement stance for over three years. As homeowners, we can't understand why this thing took so long. . . . We would like to see this thing go."

The tentative agreement, which has already been approved by Rancho Palos Verdes, goes before the County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 29.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, Griffin and others in the landslide area will divide almost $5 million in damages and, in addition, receive up to $150,000 each in 30-year, low-interest fixed-rate rehabilitation loans. The $5 million will be allocated according to the amount of damage at each home.

The homeowners contended in the suit that the county had failed to install an adequate drainage system and that overflow from heavy rainfall in the late 1970s reactivated an ancient landslide.

Up to $5 million more will spent to build a drainage system to dry out waterlogged soil that is sliding along an underground, inclined plane of rock. Another $5 million may be used to buttress the toe of the slide near the shoreline.

The deal is being financed through a cooperative arrangement between the city and the county to invoke redevelopment powers, which permit local governments to use property tax increases that stem from higher values in blighted areas to pay for rehabilitation projects.

The approach is a departure for the two governmental entities, which were battling each other over the use of redevelopment taxing powers: The city had declared the slide area blighted and the county, which stood to lose county property taxes, sued the city. The tentative agreement ends that lawsuit.

Bond Repayment Plan

Instead, the county will underwrite bonds for the slide stabilization work and forgo up to $70 million in county property taxes from increased property values. The city will use the tax money set aside in this manner to repay the bonds.

"It is an unusual agreement," said Ron Beck, the attorney who has represented the homeowners. "It is the only one where I have seen they are going to stop the slide. It is unusual in that it can be stopped, where most slides cannot be."

Beck said he insisted as a part of the settlement that stabilization work on the Abalone Cove slide take place before the city works on the larger, adjacent Portuguese Bend slide. "It is really bad in Portuguese Bend," he said. A similar lawsuit over responsibility for the Portuguese Bend slide was settled in 1963.

The third active Palos Verdes Peninsula landslide, the Flying Triangle slide, is in Rolling Hills above Portuguese Bend. It is the subject of an ongoing trial in the Torrance Superior Court between a group of homeowners and the Rolling Hills Community Assn., California Water Service and Lockwood-Singh Associates, an engineering firm.

No Buyers for Home

Like many in the three slide areas, Griffin, a retired civil engineer who used to work for the Navy, said he was unable to sell his two-bedroom house, which he bought in 1961. The house, which is on Ginger Root Lane, is technically above the slide and has not suffered structural damage.

"We tried to sell it for less than half of the potential market value and had no buyers," he said.

Beck said houses in the area have sold for between $100,000 and $150,000, which he estimated is about one-third the price of similar Peninsula homes in areas not affected by landslides. The sales were owner-financed, he said. "No bank would get involved."

In the aftermath of the proposed settlement's announcement, some have speculated that land values will revive.

Always Be Gamblers

"There are always a lot of gamblers around," said John C. McTaggart, a Rancho Palos Verdes councilman involved in the negotiations.

"There may be people who want to move in and buy the land that is stable. . . . I think that is a natural reaction, but it is not the intent of the city to increase anyone's land value or start a land rush."

Griffin said there is much work to do and considerable uncertainty remaining before the slide is stopped.

Once the agreement is signed, he said, "we have to sit back and see how fast things are done and what the weather will be. We will just continue on being concerned about this thing until substantial work is done."

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