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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Natural Tests of Judgment

March 29, 1998

El Nino's storms have provided the most recent reports of life on the edge in Orange County. Last week, more rain raised new anxieties about saturated land, following an interlude of some glorious weather. Welcome to "Dangerous Beauty"--not the movie, but the adventure in Southern California living.

In recent years, fire and flood have ravaged hillsides, leaving homeowners in such spots as Laguna Beach and Laguna Niguel to question why they built or bought where they did, and whether to rebuild or move on. This month, the noise of cracking glass and splitting wood that accompanied the collapse of homes in landslides was the sound of people's dreams shattering.

The relentless pounding of the season's storms over an extended period, and the excruciating waiting to see what damage would be wrought, gave way to resignation over the larger forces of nature. Once the hillsides made their forceful statement, the blame game was in season, giving lawyers plenty to do. There are government documents to comb, insurance policies to survey, and contracts with builders to review for potential ways of recovering some of what has been lost.

Many of these inquiries deal not so much with the whims of nature as with the judgment of humans. In the case of the Niguel Summit development, for example, a court battle had long preceded El Nino's mischief. There has been wrangling over whether the developers were negligent in building on a slope that experts had feared was unstable.

Slopes and canyons have been altered into flat pads to accommodate homes where nature never intended them. Geologists long have argued that many of South County's hillsides are unstable because they have been sites of ancient landslides and earthquakes. This raises the likelihood that the damage was just waiting to happen.

In looking for someone to blame, the issue of liability by approving agencies has come up. But unless there has been outright fraud or corruption, the negligence or inattentiveness of city officials in approving building permits is not enough. Since government is immune under state law from most negligence lawsuits, the litigation is between developers, geologists, graders, neighbors and others.

Still, cities can do a better job of protecting future homeowners in their review of permit applications. And the larger question of cozy historical relations between county government and developers remains. This atmosphere of unquestioned assent to growth inevitably has contributed to building plans in places where nature never intended.

Perhaps builders and developers also will see that it is in their interest to do better, even if the warnings of geologists and others fail to move them. The prospect of having to purchase homes back, or to reach settlements with homeowners, can provide an economic incentive to do better.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for the well-informed and prudent buyer. It is far preferable to have undergone the extra effort to ensure the safety of a site in advance than to be engaged after the disaster in an effort to recover losses and start over. The old saying "buyer beware" is a timeless piece of advice. It is much better to do the work to make a sound investment on the front end than on the latter.

In California, we often see the result of imprudent building decisions, with homes perched on hillsides, with canyons leveled and with construction built perilously close to the sea. The march of time and the forces of nature are powerful at the edge of the continent, where the lure of a sunny climate and the prospect of a better life sometimes can overpower the exercise of common sense.

For those who face the hassle of lawsuits, the heartache of loss and the nuisance of paperwork, these lessons will be abundantly clear. For those who look on, but who may believe that it will never happen to them, the recurring stories of each natural disaster are an invitation to caution.

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