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Residents Push County to Clear Debris : Petition: Neighbors have gathered more than 300 signatures to try to force the county to remove dirt from road that has inconvenienced them since a landslide nine years ago.

August 20, 1992|FRANKI V. RANSOM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HACIENDA HEIGHTS — It's been more than nine years since a massive landslide demolished three houses and piled tons of dirt on one of the main roads leading into an upscale neighborhood in Puente Hills.

The owners of the three houses were paid off long ago, but the mound of dirt--covered with black plastic sheeting to prevent erosion--remains just where it was in March, 1983, still blocking traffic on Montellano Avenue.

Although pleas to the county to clean up the mess have gone unanswered for years, residents of the unincorporated area are reviving their effort and hoping to exert more leverage over their supervisor, Deane Dana, during a tough reelection campaign. In his bid for a fourth term, Dana was forced into a November runoff by Rolling Hills City Councilwoman Gordana Swanson. The Puente Hills residents have gathered more than 300 signatures on petitions they plan to submit to the County Board of Supervisors this week requesting that the county clean up the debris, stabilize the hillside and reopen the street.

"If this mess was in the neighborhood of any one of the supervisors, it wouldn't have been there for nine years," said Sally Bianco, a resident who spearheaded the signature drive last month. "Something would have been done."

Anne Stephens, a Dana field deputy, said the county has spent $200,000 to keep the slide area covered and install drainage pipes and is planning to meet with the Public Works Department to determine whether anything can be done to reopen the road without causing the hill to slide further.

Aside from concern over reactivating the slide, the county's reluctance is also related to a web of pending liability lawsuits, Stevens said.

Eleven homeowners whose houses face possible demolition are suing Great Western Bank, which owns the company that developed the area, seeking damages to repair the hillside and compensate them for loss of property value. Two other lawsuits are also pending.

Thomas Rubbert, the homeowners' attorney, said that Great Western accepted financial responsibility five years ago but that the case has not been settled because the bank wants to pay damages to the homeowners based on the 1983 value of their properties, which averaged about $200,000 each. He said the plaintiffs are insisting on current values; the homes were worth 400,000 to $475,000 in 1990, he said.

Meanwhile, Great Western also named Los Angeles County as a cross-defendant, arguing that the county should share the responsibility for the slide because it failed to enforce grading regulations when the developer, Financial Federation Inc., built the neighborhood in the mid-1970s.

The county maintains that it has no financial responsibility because it had no knowledge that the slope was faulty, and that normal grading procedures were followed when the area was developed, Stephens said.

The county plans to file a countersuit against Great Western seeking reimbursements for damages to the sewer system and roads, and will also try to recover expenses for reopening the road, Stephens said.

According to geologists' reports, the slide was caused by Financial Federation's failure to drain ground water from the hill when it was excavated, creating a condition of jelly-like dirt. The gradual slide began when construction workers cut into the toe of the hill to build the three homes that were demolished in the slide.

More than two years ago, the homeowners hired an engineering firm that came up with a plan to install a concrete-and-steel-reinforced structural support. The repairs would cost about $22 million.

The county approved the plan last year, but Great Western rejected it, saying it is too costly. Instead, the bank hired a firm to draw up a less expensive plan. Stephens said the county has turned down Great Western's plan several times, saying it would not be strong enough to support the slope.

"Living day by day and not knowing when or what will happen is frustrating for me and my family," said Betty Costello, one of the plaintiffs.

She said she has noticed cracks in her pool and in the front of her four-bedroom stucco home on Heatherfield Drive, but she is not afraid that the house will plunge down the hillside.

"The homeowners consider themselves hostages of Great Western," Rubbert said. "They can't move, rent or borrow money on their property."

Great Western's attorney, Heyman, said the bank has been willing to settle since 1983, but thinks the homeowners are asking for too much.

Even many whose homes are not threatened by the slide say their property values have decreased because of the plastic-covered eyesore. They also say they fear for their safety.

Bianco, who lives farther up the hill on Montellano Avenue, said that although her home is not threatened, she is afraid that residents along the closed road might be trapped by a flood or fire. She said she has to drive a circuitous route to get around the mound.

"The county acted to protect the county, not the homeowners," Bianco said. "If there is a fire or flood, we're all in deep trouble."

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