Take a few rotting sea walls and toss in the ocean's natural tendency to erode anything in its path. Add one state bureaucracy. Stir in 94 property owners, more than a dozen insurance companies and about 30 attorneys. Bring to a boil.
The ingredients add up to a lot of confusion, a long-simmering legal battle and, for many of the Las Tunas Beach residents, an ill-tasting and costly settlement to replace the group of deteriorating sea barriers near their Malibu oceanfront homes.
In two weeks, officials from the state of California and the Ticor Title Insurance Co. are scheduled to announce whether they will accept the proposed settlement, which would require the Las Tunas homeowners to pay for partial construction costs of new sea walls and assume liability for them for the next 50 years.
59 Agreed to Sign
More than one-third of the homeowners, many of them furious over the conditions of the settlement, have so far declined to sign it, but only 51% of their signatures are needed to enforce it. So far, 59 have agreed to sign, apparently ensuring the deal will go forward. Last week, the state and Ticor extended the deadline to July 7 in an apparent attempt to get more homeowners to sign the agreement.
"I've felt from the very beginning that this was an awful agreement," said Lee Crowe, one of the so-called dissident property owners. "The homeowners have been led astray. Nobody has a grip on what this will mean for any of us."
The steel-reinforced concrete barriers, called groins, were built 60 years ago at the eastern Malibu site to prevent further erosion of the beach. They were built by Title Insurance & Trust Co., Ticor's forerunner, to protect the land it owned at the time. But after years of being concealed, the concrete walls broke away and the corrosive salt water ate away at the exposed metal, 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 insurer, seeking to force them to repair or remove the dangerous groins 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 proposed settlement, a geologic hazard abatement district would be formed to replace the rotting groins with eight "rubble mound" barriers along the beach at an estimated cost of $3.05 million.
Pitch In $400,000
Ticor will put up $2.15 million, the homeowners' insurance companies will pitch in $400,000 and the rest will be assessed to the property owners, an estimated cost of $30,000 to $40,000 per parcel.
Several of the homeowners' attorneys say they are opposed to the agreement because not enough study has been done to determine the exact cost of the project or to determine future maintenance costs. And many of the homeowners say that the new groins will have no effect on their beachfront properties, yet they are being forced to join in the settlement anyway.
"The problem for all of us is that a tremendous amount of this agreement has been left to speculation," said attorney Frank Hobbs, who represents one of the property owners. "You really don't know how much it's going to cost because there are no specifications for the groin systems. There is just so much that is completely unknown. There's not a lot of substance to this settlement."
However, Craig Dummit, the attorney who represents about 62 of the 94 property owners and supports the settlement, said there is no way to come up with exact figures for a groin system. He said the cost of the project is known "as well as humanly possible."
"It actually took a lot of creativity to get this agreement and frankly I was surprised that it was signed by as many people as it was," said Dummit, who said he wrote most of the 47-page settlement document. "But I guess I would have made a bad playwright. I've gotten a lot of bad reviews."
Ticor attorney Don Franzen said the insurance company would not comment on the proposed settlement until the sign-up deadline passes.
Those who sign the agreement must waive their right to sue Ticor over the groin dispute. Several homeowners opposed to the agreement have lawsuits pending against the insurance giant.
Thirteen groins, ranging from 80 to 455 feet long, were erected in 1929 at Las Tunas Beach in eastern Malibu. Five of the groins stand in 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 the homeowners will be liable for the replacement and maintenance of the other eight. The state will not be required to pay any money under the agreement.
Houses Could Be Threatened