Not long after they moved into their hilltop dream home in Laguna Niguel, Steven and Sue Guenther were flabbergasted to see their new neighbors waving picket signs and warning home shoppers of faulty construction by developers.
Fretting over their new $270,000 investment in the latest phase of the Kite Hill subdivision, the Guenthers went to a project salesman to ask what was wrong. Just a crack in a swimming pool, they were assured.
That was nearly 10 years ago.
Today, the Guenthers' own walls are cracking, their yard is sinking and a geologist predicted the slope behind their house will collapse someday. Until recently, the Guenthers had hoisted their own picket signs as part of a new generation of disgruntled homeowners in Kite Hill, a hummocky Orange County subdivision long troubled by sliding slopes that typifies the risk of building dense, modern communities across California hillsides that bear the scars of ancient landslides.
Developers say such ridges can be stabilized; in fact, many hillside developments never develop slide problems. But in a year that showed how easily California's coastal slopes can lose their grip on the bedrock below, the Guenthers and six neighbors have sued developer S&S Construction Co., arguing it knew the area was strafed by old landslides. Claiming fraud, they said S&S had already had problems with other properties before they bought their houses in the 1980s.
"They've clamped down on building in earthquake zones; they're going to have to do the same with landslides," Guenther said.
After a neutral, court-appointed geologist filed a report in November agreeing with residents that the slope beneath their property is "at the verge of failure," the warring parties agreed to court-monitored mediation and have begun possible settlement talks. A gag order is now in effect and residents, for now, have suspended their picketing at Hillcrest Estates, an even newer development going in among hills and ancient landslides along Aliso Creek, where Guenther and others hoped to pass on warnings to yet another generation of buyers.
Yet the problems at Kite Hill, where court records show at least 20 homeowners have sued Beverly Hills-based developer S&S Construction Co. over slope problems in the past 15 years, are anything but isolated in the coastal hills of California.
Soaked by the withering rains of El Nino, at least 63 inhabited hillsides gave way this year, most along the Pacific shoreline, according to a compilation of reports by the state Division of Mines and Geology. From Big Lagoon in Humboldt County to San Clemente, the failures resulted in the evacuation of more than 1,500 structures, damaging or destroying about 200, according to the agency's 1998 Landslide Inventory.
"In coastal California, these problems are common," said Allan Barrows, a state geologist, who points to unpredictable underground rock formations as the culprit.
"These are weak materials. They're not well-cemented or consolidated. When they get lifted by earthquakes and made into hills, they're exposed to erosion and other weaknesses," Barrows said. "You're asking for problems."
Landslide sites are considered the weakest land on which to build. "Once you break something, it tends to be nettlesome from then on," Barrows said.
Landslides over thousands of years have left many hillsides, otherwise picturesque, scarred and fractured, experts said. Just within the 63-square-mile geologic quadrant around Laguna Niguel, stretching from San Juan Capistrano north to El Toro, there are more than 300 sites of ancient landslides or mudslides, documented by state geologic maps.
"It's endemic to that whole tract," Serge Tomassian, attorney for the Guenthers and six other families on Chat Drive and other streets in the Kite Hill development, said before mediation efforts began. "Quite frankly, S&S should never have built there."
There are no prohibitions against building on hillsides in Orange County as long as building codes are observed and soil grading and slope safety ratings comply with regulations, builders and state officials say. However, as the Kite Hill case shows, experts can differ over whether slopes are technically safe enough for housing.
A geotechnical firm hired by S&S had pronounced the 450-foot elevations in Laguna Niguel safe enough to build on. But using some of the very same technical data, court-appointed Geotechnical Professionals Inc. of Cypress last month reported that the hillside contained serious flaws, was well below accepted margins of safety for construction and was "close to failure."
Christine L. Herdman, general counsel for Shapell Industries in Beverly Hills, parent company of S&S Construction, could not be reached for comment on the court-ordered report. In the lawsuit, S&S officials complained they were not kept abreast of the findings by Byron Konstantinidis, the neutral geologist, who they said conducted soil testing without notifying the developer's experts in advance.