LA CONCHITA — Disaster struck on the afternoon of March 4, 1995. Rainfall had been heavy for days, and the 600-foot-high bluff above La Conchita, a modest beach-side community a few miles north of Ventura, was beginning to crumble.
Suddenly, a slab of mountain the size of four football fields broke free like a giant mud glacier. It rumbled down from the height of a 60-story building and smashed into the Vista del Rincon neighborhood.
In an instant, much of the town was hit with 600,000 tons of rock and mud, the event recorded live by film crews and indelibly stamped into the memories of residents. Nine houses were destroyed, dozens more were damaged, and about 100 houses--two-thirds of the town--were evacuated.
La Conchita today is still posted with landslide hazard warnings, and mounds of earth remain in people's backyards.
Almost four years later, many folks have moved back; others have moved on. Most began pointing fingers, first at Ventura County, then at the farm atop the bluff. This week, the disaster moves into the courtroom, as the second of two major lawsuits comes to trial.
Attorneys for 149 residents want at least $20 million in damages from La Conchita Ranch Co., whose farming practices they blame for causing the slide. Lawyers for the farm deny the allegations and claim the slide was a natural disaster, unfortunate but no one's fault.
The first lawsuit was resolved in June 1997, when 112 residents settled with the growers. Terms were not disclosed and there were no admissions of guilt, but residents received an unspecified amount of money in damages. The settlement, however, contained no provisions to fix the slippery slope, attorneys said.
The way that suit was handled angered others in the small community, who banded together and filed a second suit a month after the first was settled.
Robert L. Brace, a Santa Barbara attorney for the second group of plaintiffs, said the hillside gave way because careless irrigation practices at La Conchita Ranch Co. saturated the soil.
La Conchita Ranch Co. has grown thousands of avocado and citrus trees on 688 acres above the town since 1975.
Defendants are La Conchita Ranch Co. and others associated with its ownership or operation over the last 20 years, including J.B Farms, RTR Associates, Rincon Investment Co. and Vista La Conchita Corp.
The trial is expected to begin Tuesday and is expected to last at least four weeks.