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A Steady Erosion of Trust

Slides: Canyon residents blame city, water district for helping saturate hills.


LAGUNA BEACH — From her vantage point on Rim Rock Canyon Road, Christine Kenny was among the lucky ones. She was dry. Her home was intact. There were no bulldozers clearing muddy debris from collapsed hillsides saturated with water from recent El Nino-powered storms.

Her sense of relief was short-lived.

After the storms, Kenny heard one day that her neighbor's backyard had slipped away. And then, last weekend, another neighbor's home slipped off its foundation and crashed into a ravine.

"I was frightened," she said. "You look in the newspaper and know a lot of people are affected by these things, especially like on Laguna Canyon Road, and it didn't happen to you. Then you see this and say, 'My God. Is it going to go up the street?' "

For years, Rim Rock residents have lived with anxiety over the fact that, sooner or later, the earth beneath them might give way.

They've complained about two water tanks above the area which they claim have been leaking. They also say that a local water district has periodically discharged thousands of gallons of water that cascaded down the street, causing erosion on the road and steep hillsides.

Worried about the prospect of more landslides and street repairs, the 20 residents along the private street have called a neighborhood meeting for Sunday and have invited Mayor Steve Dicterow.

The issue has pitted the residents against the city and the Laguna Beach County Water District.

"The city has told us we need to form an assessment district and widen the road before the city can take it over," said Kenny. "That means construction trucks that will rumble down our street and make tremors and we can't have that. But we don't know who owns the street, so we can't pull a permit. In the meantime, why is the city waiting until there's a disaster to do something? This is just a nightmare."

Officials deny they're doing anything to put Rim Rock at risk.

"We monitor the reservoirs regularly and we have a very tight system," said Joseph Sovella, general manager for the water district, which serves 8,100 residents. "The tank does not leak. If they say it's leaking, that's not correct. There's a difference between draining the reservoir and overflowing."

One tank has a capacity of 600,000 gallons, and the other 287,000.

Sovella said that on occasions when there is "an overflow situation," water runs 800 to 900 feet down the street and into a catch basin. He added that storm drains are maintained by the city, although the lines of responsibility become gray on a private street.

He said the water district wants to install line to carry water under the street. Although the $100,000 project has been proposed, it has not yet been approved for next year's district budget, Sovella said.

"We've had situations where water has developed on the street from overflows, and tank drainage," Sovella said. "But there's no leaks into the ground as such. . . . It's a managed flow, it's not eroding or destabilizing the hillsides."

There have been overflows during the El Nino year, Sovella said, "but not when we've had a storm going."

"The people would like to have a new street and we don't want to be in the position to deal with that," Sovella said. "We will resolve our water problems but not the street problems."

City Manager Kenneth C. Frank said he is aware of the problems on Rim Rock but its private street status, like that of dozens of others in Laguna Beach, may mean Rim Rock residents will have to pay for street repairs.

"We've told several neighbors that the city will not want to take a lead on this," Frank said. "If the road needs repairing right now, we are willing to participate in some repairs, not 100% and maybe not even 50%, but we will pay something."

The cost of repairs is not known.

One solution may be to establish a Rim Rock assessment district and then the city could take over the road maintenance, Frank said. But even then, the road would have to be brought up to city standards with widening, curbs and other modifications.

Originally, the area was unincorporated county territory, Frank said. That allowed for building private streets, many of them extremely narrow such as Rim Rock with no curbs or gutters. Some of the houses along Rim Rock were built in the early 1960s. Many have been remodeled with lush landscaping, have ocean views and command real estate prices of at least $450,000.

No one is certain who owns the street and Mayor Dicterow said in a letter to Rim Rock residents that there are "dozens of private streets like Rim Rock all of which have bizarre ownership patterns."

Kenny said they tried to look up property records and no one is named as the owner.

"We don't own it, and don't know who has responsibility," Kenny said. "To pull a permit, you need the owner. If one of us does this privately, who wants that kind of liability?"

Neighbors are most concerned about the accumulative effect of the drain water they see on their street and suspect it contributes to erosion.

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