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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Rocketdyne Health Inquiry May Give Realtors Headaches

October 05, 1999|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Simi Valley Realtor Kreg Gable has seen people back out of home purchases, usually because of financial woes. Losing a sale for environmental reasons, he said, is rare.

But last week, an agent in Gable's Simi Valley office had a woman walk away from a deal to buy a home in Box Canyon after she read a disclosure statement. It advised of alleged health threats from the nearby Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory and other Rocketdyne facilities.

To look into lingering health questions surrounding the lab, a team of federal health inspectors arrived in the region Monday. The presence of the team marks the first time an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has studied issues affecting residents near the 2,800-acre property, federal officials said.

With the increased attention being paid to the site, Gable anticipates there may be more changes of heart to come.

"There is a new level of awareness," said Gable, owner of R.R. Gable Inc.

At the urging of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), a 10-member team from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is spending this week reviewing available data and talking with residents to determine what steps, if any, need to be taken to protect the community from any ill effects of the lab, which has been used for rocket engine testing, nuclear energy research and defense work.

The team will spend much of its time at the site, located just inside the Ventura County line, south of Simi Valley and west of Chatsworth and West Hills. Members also will meet with the public tonight in Chatsworth and Wednesday evening in Simi Valley.

Some Simi Valley and San Fernando Valley residents and local legislators have long called for a study of health effects in the area. The arrival of the health team is the necessary first step before officials can determine if such a study is necessary or feasible.

The agency, which describes this week's effort as a fact-finding mission, is expected to report back to Feinstein and Gallegly by mid-November.

In the meantime, several real estate agents who do business in the area said they anticipate that while the region waits for answers, they may be waiting longer for sales.

"If enough is known in the near future to put people's minds at ease, it [buyer anxiety] will peak immediately, when the least is known, and diminish," said Gable, who said roughly 85% of his business comes from Simi Valley and the West San Fernando Valley.

"If more is disclosed and it becomes more negative, it [business] could theoretically go all the way to zero."

Said Adam Robbins of Realty World, Imperial Realty in Canoga Park: "The more people address this as an issue, the more potential problems we'll have selling real estate in that area."

Up until now, Gable and several other real estate brokers said, the gentle slopes and stunning mountain views of east Simi Valley and the West San Fernando Valley have proved alluring enough to overcome concerns for many buyers. There are "For Sale" signs within a mile of the lab's main gate, and agents said those properties, many in gated luxury communities, do well.

Gable said the Simi Valley market is the hottest it's been in years, and figures from the Southland Regional Assn. of Realtors show that the southwest San Fernando Valley boasts the second highest tally of single family home sales this year (1,989) and the highest median sales price ($269,000) in the Valley.

Bob Wood, whose "For Sale" signs dot narrow, winding Lake Manor Drive, a short distance from the main gate, said he had 50 transactions involving buyers and sellers in the area last year.

"I've only had two sales that fell apart," said Wood, an agent with Northridge-based Todd C. Olson Estate Brokerage Inc.

One was a year ago. One was the woman from Box Canyon.

Wood, who represented the seller, agreed that increased attention being focused on health concerns in the area could make some buyers skittish.

"The more that appears in the media, generally speaking, the less good news," said Wood, who has lived in the area since 1979 and specializes in sales there. But he added, "I think it's a good idea to do honest research. I don't believe there's any threat to me or my family. But if there is, I'd be the first to move out."

Dan Beck, a spokesman for Boeing Co.'s Rocketdyne Division, said the company entirely supports the health agency's fact-finding mission.

"This is something that we've been calling for for quite a while," said Beck. "For years."

Officials with the toxic substances agency said the team includes environmental health scientists, toxicologists and health physicists who will review data from Rocketdyne, the Environmental Protection Agency and other sources, as well as have one-on-one sessions with residents.

"These are our steps to see if we're even going to need to take a next step," said Gwen Eng, the regional representative for the agency. "This is the process that we have to go through."

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