After years of legal battles over the remains of several rotting seawalls at Las Tunas Beach in Malibu, a tentative settlement has been reached that will require area property owners to assume future liability for the barriers.
About 15 homeowners, furious over the conditions of the settlement, have refused to join in the agreement.
"This settlement is onerous," said Roy Harrow, one of the homeowners opposed to the settlement. "It's a major rip-off. How can individuals be liable for something we have no control over? The whole thing is unbelievable."
The concrete barriers, called groins, were built 59 years ago at the eastern Malibu site to protect the beach. The concrete eventually broke away and salt water corroded the exposed metal supports, leaving behind a series of sharp, twisted spikes.
Several years ago, the state of California filed a suit against 92 Las Tunas property owners and the Title Insurance & Trust Co., the forerunner of Ticor Title Insurance Co., which originally sought state permits to build the groins. The state wanted the homeowners and the insurance company to repair the barriers and assume all future liability for them.
Since that time, more than two dozen lawyers representing the state, Ticor, the homeowners and their insurance companies have been haggling over a solution.
Under the agreement, a geologic hazard abatement district will be formed, and eight deteriorated groins will be replaced by three new concrete barriers at an estimated cost of $1.7 million.
Ticor will put up $850,000 and the homeowners' insurance companies will pitch in $400,000. The money will be placed in escrow and the homeowners will be assessed the remaining $450,000.
That assessment would be about $20,000 per homeowner, but those who agree to the settlement would have $15,000 of their assessment paid from the escrow account. Those who don't sign the agreement would have to pay the entire assessment bill by themselves.
The settlement also calls for all the property owners to pay for maintenance of the barriers. The geologic hazard abatement district would determine the cost to each homeowner.
Attorneys for several of the homeowners oppose the agreement because no engineering study has determined whether three groins will be enough to protect the beach or whether the barriers could be built for $1.7 million. That figure is based solely on an oral estimate given by an engineer to Craig Dummit, the attorney for a majority of the homeowners along Las Tunas Beach.
But Dummit said the settlement will be terminated if the work can't be done for $1.7 million or less.
"It's the best agreement that the homeowners could get when you consider the alternatives," said Dummit, who represents 62 Las Tunas property owners. "Someday the homeowners would have had to assume liability for the groins no matter who built them. In any group this size you might anticipate that some people wouldn't be happy with it. But we believe that it's fair."
Homeowners will have 45 days to sign the agreement after the final settlement conference Feb. 23. Those who sign will waive their right to sue Ticor. Several homeowners opposed to the agreement have lawsuits pending against the insurance giant.
"Ticor, in effect, is requiring that claims against them be waived, yet they are fundamentally responsible for the whole thing," said attorney Richard Stone, who is representing homeowner Fay Singer in a $1-million suit against the insurance firm. "This agreement is astonishing."
The groins, ranging from 80 to 455 feet long, were erected in 1929. Five of them are located at Las Tunas State Beach, which is little more than a dirt parking lot fronting the Pacific Ocean. Under the agreement, the state will assume liability for those groins, while homeowners will be liable for the replacement and maintenance of the other three. The state will not be required to pay any money under the agreement.
Several homeowners are upset over the agreement because they believe that they could be forced to pay thousands of dollars in future assessments to maintain the groins. In addition, they're angry because they were not responsible for installing the barriers and say the state failed to maintain them.
"The whole settlement has been tainted by the lack of any evidence that the (new) groins will even work," said attorney Jeanne Flaherty, who represents Roy and Paula Harrows. In a letter to her clients, Flaherty called the proposed settlement "one of the most outrageous proposals I have ever reviewed."
"Ticor and the insurance companies are getting out of the deal for less than one of those (homeowners') pieces of property are worth," she said. "The settlement is ambiguous and not founded on solid facts."
If a significant number of homeowners decide not to sign the agreement, Ticor and the other insurance companies can cancel it. Also, the settlement will be negated if the assessment district is unable to find an insurance carrier at a "reasonable" cost.
There have been two lawsuits involving joggers during the past 10 years. In each incident, the runners claimed that they impaled a foot on a hidden spike. Each reached an out-of-court settlement for about $30,000.
Some of the property owners opposed to the agreement feel they're being forced to comply because a majority of the homeowners have agreed to the settlement. To them, the issue boils down majority rule versus individual choice.
"I appreciate the fact that democratic government is based upon majority rule, but this agreement even rules out the possibility of expressing a minority dissenting opinion," Singer said.