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Homes Back From Brink in La Conchita

Community: Six years after a landslide buried houses, the seaside town near Ventura is on a roll.

July 21, 2001|ERIN TEXEIRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years ago, Jack Hubbard's home was considered worthless. No matter that it was nearly 3,000 square feet, with to-die-for ocean views. Ventura County officials placed its value at zero.

Last month, it sold for nearly $580,000.

La Conchita, Hubbard's tiny, die-hard neighborhood 15 miles north of Ventura, is rebounding.

In 1995, the coastal community of about 240 properties was shattered when a massive chunk of earth dislodged from an adjacent cliff and devoured nine houses. The values of undamaged homes evaporated. Insurance companies and banks turned tail, as did many residents who were heartbroken to see their tightknit, laid-back village splinter.

Now, Hubbard says, "I think we're getting over it."

Though the town of beach-lovers is still considered a geological hazard area and the crushed homes remain in plain sight, a steady stream of new families is now paying healthy sums to move to La Conchita. Communitywide improvements, including Ventura Freeway access roads, a playground and a path to the beach, are being considered.

"I think it's getting back to the same place it was," said resident Jerry Nesnadny, a pharmaceutical manager. "A lot of old people left and new people came. . . . It's a great town. People who live here are really hard-pressed to leave."

Residents of La Conchita, a former farming village turned surfers' paradise, feared landslides when heavy rains fell in early 1995. Most of the town had been evacuated when, on March 4, 600,000 tons of mud and rock crashed down. No one was injured.

In many ways, the community has never been the same.

Lawsuits quickly divided neighbors and pitted the community against owners of a hilltop ranch, accused by some of over-watering trees and destabilizing the hillside. A banana farm that attracted tourists was swallowed by mud and went out of business. Some sought crisis counseling after losing their life savings and worrying constantly about the unstable mountain.

Vista Del Rincon Drive still bears witness to the town's problem. Along the street, which borders threatening 600-foot cliffs, a huge mound of earth sits shoved against the rear of three crushed homes. A junk pile of tattered furniture, crumbling drywall and a child's abandoned teddy bear lies where once there were frontyards.

The road was cleared only last year, and the homes remain fenced off with "No Trespassing" signs everywhere.

"You still have those homes sitting there--it's a remembrance," said Roberta Ski, manager of La Conchita Market. "An eerie remembrance."

County officials say that clearing the rubble could disturb the hillside and endanger other homes. They have left it untouched until further study can ensure a safe cleanup.

Neither the county nor the ranch is responsible for the cleanup, county officials said. And as long as the area is deemed a geologic hazard--a label some call a county-imposed stigma--little will change, county officials said.

County engineers monitor the hill for movement every three months, said Jim Myers, senior engineer with Ventura County. But "I'm not aware of any formal discussion of changing those guidelines," he said.

County Supervisor Kathy Long, whose district includes La Conchita, said: "This is in limbo."

The geologic hazard designation prohibits new construction or additions unless homeowners get expensive geologic studies, and it means that renovations are tightly controlled.

It also means that a few homes near the slide area are still assessed at drastically low prices. Ski's two-story home was valued at $700 last year, she said.

In the years after the landslide, many homes sold for a fraction of their pre-slide value, but recently, homes on Vista Del Rincon and throughout La Conchita have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And residents say memories of the landslide are diminishing.

Last year, the least expensive property sold in La Conchita was a mobile home that drew $160,000; the most expensive was a single-family home for about $400,000, according to Ventura County Assessor Dan Goodwin.

"Clearly, the market has accepted a point of view that property values are once again strong," Goodwin said. "Now it appears that buyers are becoming aggressive."

Escalating real estate prices elsewhere have pushed many buyers to reconsider La Conchita, said John Heard, a Realtor with Re/Max in Camarillo, who sold three La Conchita properties recently. He estimates that comparable homes outside La Conchita sell for 20% to 25% more.

"People are seeking salvation from rent and soaring real estate prices," Heard said. "They say, 'Let's take a chance here.' "

Banks such as Wells Fargo and Chase are lending money for homes in the neighborhood, and insurance companies are writing new policies, he said.

Residents are discussing plans to start a neighborhood association and build a playground for the town's growing population of children, said Mike Bell, a retired Department of Water and Power supervisor who has owned a home in town since 1983.

They also are working with county and state transportation officials to design new, safer access roads to the freeway and a new pedestrian crossing between La Conchita and the beach.

Today, residents of La Conchita still are monitoring water they say flows off the cliff from La Conchita Ranch, the avocado and citrus ranch with 40,000 trees above the village. In 1995, about 150 residents received settlements from the ranch, while others tried--unsuccessfully--to prove the ranch's irrigation over-saturated the hill that slid.

They are struggling to wade through county bureaucracy to get the geologic hazard label lifted.

And they still marvel that they are lucky enough to live in a place where neighbors know everyone, children can walk to the beach, and sunsets offer incredible views of the Channel Islands.

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