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Judge Rules County Not Liable for Slide Cleanup

Courts: La Conchita homeowners sued to have tons of mud declared a public nuisance. The debris is still blocking part of a street.

February 10, 1996|PAUL ELIAS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County officials do not have to clear tons of mud and debris still clogging La Conchita streets nearly a year after a massive mudslide slammed into the seaside hamlet, a Superior Court judge ruled Friday.

La Conchita homeowners sued Ventura County supervisors to force them to declare the 11 tons of mud and debris that blocks a 250-foot section of Vista Del Rincon Drive a public nuisance.

The declaration would have legally required the county to force the owner of the hill--La Conchita Ranch Co.--to clean up the mess. If the company refused, the county would be required to move the mud and bill the owner.

But Ventura County Superior Court Judge Barbara Lane, citing basic separation-of-power laws, said she does not have the authority to "assume the power of county road commissioner."

She said the decision to clean the mess is not the responsibility of the Board of Supervisors, which has the right--but not the duty--to declare Vista Del Rincon Drive a public nuisance.

County attorneys successfully argued that assuming responsibility for the mud on Vista Del Rincon Drive would mean assuming responsibility to fix the entire hillside, which geologists warn could slide again.

Officials call the debris on the street the toe of the landslide. And simply removing it would further weaken the hill and almost surely worsen the situation, said Butch Britt, county road commissioner.

Instead, Britt said, the hill needs to be terraced from top to bottom before the toe can be removed.

Assistant County Counsel Dennis Slivinski argued that the cost to secure the hill "is beyond comprehension." The county, he said, simply cannot afford to fix the problem, which some geologists said could cost as much as $30 million.

The landside destroyed nine homes and damaged dozens more. The remaining homes in La Conchita have been severely devalued by the Ventura County assessor, who said many of the homes are worthless until the hill is fixed.

Jeff LaFave, representing more than 100 La Conchita homeowners, unsuccessfully urged Lane on Friday to force the supervisors to act. Because the mud is on a county-maintained road, the homeowners contended, government officials are required to clear it.

"The situation we have now is complete inaction," LaFave said. "They are sticking their heads in the sand. But it is a problem that will not go away. Who is going to get rid of the mud in the streets?"

Slivinski said county officials are negotiating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund a study of the slide to determine the next step.

Further, Slivinski and other county officials have maintained since the March 4 slide that the legal issue of responsibility is between the homeowners and the owners of the mud, La Conchita Ranch Co. The same property owners have sued the ranch company, charging the citrus grower with negligence.

They claim continuous irrigation of citrus crops and addition of an access road cut into the hill caused the slide. They seek an unspecified amount of damages.

While that suit wasn't scheduled to be heard Friday, Lane agreed to briefly discuss scheduling issues.

LaFave told Lane that he fears that the negligence suit could languish in court for the next five or six years. More than 40 homeowners are over the age of 70 and "we will have clients that will be dead" by the time the suit is resolved, LaFave told the judge.

No resolution to that problem was reached Friday. Lane and opposing attorneys agreed to discuss the matter further at future hearings.

LaFave also told the judge that a decision to add Ventura County as a defendant in the negligence suit has yet to be made.

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