When Ron Muranaka paid $564,000 for a stucco Colonial in Yorba Linda with dramatic views of the Chino Hills, he was vaguely aware that the area was earthquake-prone. But so was the rest of California, he figured.
Seven years later, his yard cracked apart. Then the driveway split. The living room walls separated and door frames warped.
But all that paled next to what happened early one summer morning in 1999: With a roar, much of the backyard slid 40 feet down a cliff.
Geologists hired by Muranaka and his wife, Dawn, reported grim news: The Whittier fault system, which their real estate agent had told them was miles from their house, actually ran right beneath it. The land was shifting constantly, trapping water beneath the foundation and undermining the property.
"The dirt underneath us is totally unstable," said Dawn Muranaka. "We're terrified."
Owners of at least two dozen other houses in Yorba Linda's Bryant Ranch development are in the same predicament. Their plight illustrates the limitations of the Alquist-Priolo Act, the 30-year-old state law intended to prevent construction atop active earthquake faults.
When Bryant Ranch was being planned in the late 1970s, geologists hired by the developers warned that an active fault line ran through parts of some neighborhoods. The developers hired new geologists, who declared the faults inactive. That allowed more homes to be squeezed onto the hillsides than otherwise would have been permitted.
It was all perfectly legal.
Those familiar with the Alquist-Priolo Act say it's a common pattern: When one geologist says not to build, developers find another to tell them to go right ahead.
"I don't know why so many developers work so hard to make the faults disappear, but they do," said J. David Rogers, whose firm, Geolith in Pleasant Hill, has reviewed hundreds of geological reports for California cities.
One of the most notorious examples occurred in the Bay Area city of Pleasanton in the late 1980s. Detailed federal and state maps showed that the Calaveras fault ran through a 258-acre site where 80 homes were proposed. The presence of the fault was confirmed by the first geologist hired by the developers.
Then another expert was brought in. He reached a different conclusion: that the 110-mile-long fault hopped over the project site, stopping just south of the property and picking up again beyond the northern boundary.
State officials expressed concern about the finding, and the U.S. Geological Survey offered to help locate the fault lines. Pleasanton officials declined the assistance, and the development was approved. The homes have not suffered fault damage. City officials say they followed the law to the letter.
Critics say that is the problem: The Alquist-Priolo Act relies on developers and their hired experts to assess seismic risks, and on local officials to ensure that everything is aboveboard. Some cities thoroughly review geologists' reports, but others lack the interest or the expertise.
Yorba Linda officials acknowledge that their review of the Bryant Ranch project was limited.
"That's for the developer to do," said Roy Stephenson, who was city engineer when the subdivisions were approved. "We assume the developer wouldn't want to submit false reports. That could just bring them trouble later on."
Earlier this year, 80 Bryant Ranch homeowners collected a $6-million settlement from the developers and subcontractors after a six-year court battle. The Muranakas and several others are pursuing a separate lawsuit against the city of Yorba Linda.
The developers say the damage to the Bryant Ranch homes is unrelated to the Whittier fault system. They blame bad landscaping, El Nino rains, over-watering of lawns and ill-advised pool installations.
"No one we have consulted has said this damage is being caused by faults," said Bob Carlson, an attorney for Brighton Homes of Orange County, one of the companies that developed Bryant Ranch.
The homeowners say doubters are welcome to stop by the next time the fault shudders.
Steve Patterson lives with his wife in a five-bedroom Bryant Ranch house they bought in 1990 for $584,500. Patterson woke up one morning in the summer of 1999 to find that a large section of his backyard had disappeared. It is now at the bottom of a 50-foot cliff, along with a fence he had installed days before.
"The city should have investigated this," Patterson said of the conflicting geological findings. "There were reports that said not to build."
Planning for the Bryant Ranch development--high on jagged ridges above the Riverside Freeway in north Orange County--began in 1978, when the land was controlled by the Campeau Corp. of Canada and John Wertin, a local real estate tycoon.
The historic ranch was carved out of the massive Rancho Canon de Santa Ana by John Bixby in 1875. His daughter, Susanna Bixby Bryant, took over the cattle and citrus grove operations in 1911 and later added a large botanical garden in memory of her father.