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Suit Seeks to Fix Responsibility for Old Sea Wall

October 18, 1987|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

A series of sharp, twisted spikes jut out from the sand along Las Tunas Beach in Malibu, a jarring sight against a background of rising waves and gliding birds.

The spikes are the only remnants of a rotting sea wall built to protect the beach, but to people like homeowner Kurt Simon, they represent a lengthy, bitter battle over property rights, access to public beaches and, ultimately, majority rule versus individual choice.

"The whole thing is outrageous," said Simon, whose beach house is more than 200 feet away from the nearest exposed groin. "We're stuck in a fight between two giants and we shouldn't be involved at all. We feel completely helpless."

Today, those metal rods, which once formed the core of a concrete barrier known as a groin, are the focus of a lawsuit filed by the state against 110 Las Tunas property owners and Title Insurance & Trust Co., the forerunner of Ticor Title Insurance Co., which originally sought state permits for the sand traps.

Assuming Liability

The state is seeking to force the homeowners and the insurance company to repair the groins and assume all future liability for them, although the homeowners were not aware of their existence until they emerged from the ground several years ago.

If the state wins its case, the homeowners could be forced to pay several million dollars to repair the groins.

The homeowners claim that the state has threatened to pull the groins out if they do not repair them.

Some experts warn that the houses and the beach--as well as a section of Pacific Coast Highway--could be washed away if the groins are removed.

The homeowners believe the dispute is part of a larger scheme by the state to condemn the area and take the valuable coast property for use as a public beach.

The groin litigation has swelled into a bureaucratic nightmare, involving nearly 25 lawyers representing the state, Ticor, the homeowners and their insurance companies.

Last week attorneys held a settlement conference but were unable to reach an agreement and have scheduled another meeting for Nov. 20.

So far, about the only thing everyone agrees with is that the spikes are dangerous.

Thirteen groins, ranging from 80 to 455 feet long, were erected in 1929 at Las Tunas in eastern Malibu. The sand traps were designed to protect the beach, but after years of being concealed, the concrete walls broke away and the corrosive salt water chewed away at the exposed metal.

The five western groins stand in Las Tunas State Beach, which is little more than a dirt parking lot fronting the Pacific Ocean. The state Lands Commission wants to replace those with two long "super groins" and import fill to dump there.

Hidden Agenda

Homeowners like Fay Singer, a Malibu artist, believe that the whole dispute centers around the state's wish to widen the public part of the beach.

"They want a bigger public beach but they want us to pay for it," Singer said. "That's what this is all about. These groins were put in 60 years ago, but now they're saying we're responsible for them. It doesn't make sense."

Deputy Atty. Gen. Robert Collins, citing the potential hazard posed by the exposed groins, said someone needs to assume liability for the groins.

"It's our position that the homeowners and Ticor should either remove the groins or repair them," Collins said. "We're simply upholding state law in trying to remove the hazard. The state didn't put the groins in, and I think it may be argued that the covenant to maintain the groins runs with the land."

There have been two lawsuits involving female joggers during the past 10 years. In each incident, the runners claimed that they impaled a foot on a hidden spike and each reached an out-of-court settlement for about $30,000.

Cost Concerns

Several homeowners are concerned because they believe that assuming liability for the groins could lead to huge repair and maintenance bills as well as soaring insurance rates.

Individuals involved in the settlement hearings say that Ticor has offered to pay up to $850,000 to repair the groins and other home insurance companies have agreed to pitch in about $400,000 if the homeowners pay an undetermined amount for the rest.

An Army Corps of Engineers consultant has estimated cost of the repair project at up to $13 million, which caused on homeowner to liken the insurance companies' offer to "somewhere below a pittance."

Craig Dummit, the attorney who represents 65 Las Tunas property owners, said that they are willing to agree to the formation of an assessment district to pay for the groin maintenance.

However, he said the major stumbling block has been the state's refusal to contribute any funds for the groin repair and its insistence on open-ended liability for property owners. Ticor's attorney's could not be reached for comment.

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