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Homeowners Blame City for Landslide : Rains Only Increase Impact of 1991 Excavation, Residents Say

February 25, 1993|EDMUND NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MT. WASHINGTON — The last thing Carol Corrigan expected to see when she moved into her handsome two-story hillside house six years ago was the trees in her back yard moving, in slow motion, down slope.

But since the heavy rains began to fall last month, much of Corrigan's back yard on Pheasant Drive has slipped away, like a sandcastle flaking away in a rising tide.

The lush outdoor sitting area where the free-lance writer once entertained guests surrounded by trees and bushes is now a bare, rutted space, strewn with bricks and downed eucalyptus saplings. And big clumps of dirt and uprooted trees have slipped into the canyon below.

"It was inconceivable," a stunned Corrigan said. "I had done everything according to code."

Three hillside houses on Pheasant Drive, including neighbors on both sides of Corrigan, faced further erosion this week as rainwater continued to eat mercilessly at the slope below them. And a cottage on Milton Court, a cul-de-sac below, was tilting from the weight of the dirt piling up against its side.

Inspectors from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety describe the slope as an active slide.

"It's still moving," said Scott McGill, a senior grading inspector.

But area residents contend that the problem isn't just a matter of Mother Nature acting up. The slope has been undermined by a 50-by-80-foot excavation at the end of Milton Court, below the Pheasant Drive homes, and the city allowed it to happen, the homeowners say.

City inspectors say there were several causes of the slide, including the unpredictably heavy rains and some drainage problems from the Pheasant Drive houses. Because the slide is occurring on private property, the city is limited in its ability to intercede, the inspectors add.

"It doesn't make sense that the excavation was the sole cause, because of the size of the slide and its orientation," McGill said.

To ward off further saturation, most of the slope has been sheathed in plastic by workers from the Los Angeles Conservation Corps.

The excavation, on a piece of property owned by Eliodoro Beas, has been abandoned since mid-1991, when the city issued a stop-work order because of a dispute with a neighbor over property lines. By that time, the excavation had placed the hillside in jeopardy, the homeowners say.

"A geologist told me that he dug out the hill's keyway, the part that holds everything up," said Arthur Shapiro, who owns the house north of Corrigan's. Shapiro moved out of his house last month after his cesspool slipped into Corrigan's yard, leaving him without a sewage system.

The homeowners do not blame the ill-starred Beas, who exhausted his funds in a legal battle with Joe Shaker, the owner of the buckling cottage on Milton Court. Beas has also lost his bank loan because of the site's problems.

The Pheasant Drive residents say the city, which issued permits to allow the excavation, should have ensured that retaining walls or other devices were installed to firm up the hillside.

"We've been calling Building and Safety about this for two years," said Suzanne Hardy, who owns the house south of Corrigan's along with her husband, Barry.

The city department's only response, she said, has been to issue orders for the Pheasant Drive homeowners to employ soil engineering experts to file reports. Hardy said that such a report could cost her more than $8,000.

City Councilman Mike Hernandez has called for an investigation into the city's responsibility for the situation on Pheasant Drive.

McGill referred questions about the city's liability to Ernest Herrera, head of Building and Safety's investigation division. Herrera said he was unfamiliar with the situation on Pheasant Drive.

Meanwhile, the homeowners watch their hillside's disintegration with a mixture of anger and despair. A fissure next to Corrigan's ground-level deck has widened markedly this week. Corrigan pointed the other day to the area where the deck used to abut on the back yard.

"The ground right there was level with the deck," she said, indicating a six-foot-wide ditch. "I didn't even need railings."

Shapiro has been living with friends and family members since last month. Contractors have estimated it will cost at least $25,000 to hook his house up to the city sewer system. Insurance in the area does not cover erosion or earth movement.

Hardy stood on her balcony the other day and looked at the site with disbelief. She pointed toward Corrigan's back yard.

"It all started about a month ago with just a crack right there," she said.

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