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LAGUNA BEACH : City Sued Over Loss of Home in Landslide

November 16, 1993|GEOFF BOUCHER

A family that lost its home in the devastating Mystic Lane landslide in January filed suit Monday against the city and the Laguna Beach County Water District.

Thomas and Gayla Hitzel claim leaks in underground water and sewage pipes weakened the earth beneath their $750,000 home, leading to the slide that destroyed it during the unusually rainy January.

One other resident of the ocean-view neighborhood has filed suit against the city because of the slide. Three houses crumbled Jan. 18 when a steep ravine gave way following days of continuous rain.

The Hitzels also contend that former Laguna Beach city officials knew of an ancient landslide on the site and had banned construction in the area in early 1970s.

The city's lifting of the ban, which led unsuspecting homeowners to build there, amounts to negligence, said Jeffrey F. LaFave, the couple's attorney.

An attorney for the city, Kathy Jenson, said those claims are unfounded. She said that when the Hitzel's home was built in the mid-1980s, the city required the developer to do geo-technical surveys to gauge the ground's stability.

Jenson also said the city's storm drains and sewage lines beneath the area were sound until they were sheared and crumpled by the ground failure that brought down the homes.

"The city has acted very reasonably all along and required the appropriate measures," Jenson said. She added that slope repair work done after the slide shows the city's continued effort to assist residents.

"We'd rather see solutions than lawsuits," she said.

Thomas Hitzel expressed a distaste for litigation but said he sued "to protect our interests and rights in this matter."

The family lost nearly everything when the ground gave way beneath the their house.

Ironically, Hitzel said, the home probably would have been destroyed by the firestorm that tore through Laguna Beach last month.

"I feel terrible for our neighbors who lost their homes in the fire, but at least, thank God, they were protected by insurance," he said. Hitzel said a land-movement exclusion left his family with no insurance assistance.

"I wish our house was still there to get burned down in that fire, at least we would have had something," he said.

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