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Laguna Tackles Steep Repair Bill

The city starts making budget cuts to free up $1 million to begin repairing the Bluebird Canyon hillside before winter rains arrive.

June 23, 2005|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Laguna Beach officials began cutting the city's budget Tuesday in an effort to free up $1 million for emergency repair to the Bluebird Canyon hillside that collapsed this month, destroying or seriously damaging 20 homes and threatening scores more.

But the move represents little more than a down payment on shoring up and rebuilding the fallen hillside, which gave way June 1. For Laguna, which has a budget of about $57 million, shouldering the cost -- if the federal government won't pay -- will take years.

"We're going to have to appropriate a lot more than $1 million. It's just the tip of the iceberg," City Manager Ken Frank said. "We're going to have to make major changes to budgets over the next several years.... $1 million was just all we could do in a couple of weeks."

Frank estimated it could cost up to $3 million to stabilize the hillside and at least $5 million more to rebuild it -- but probably much more.

Some things the city agreed to trim from the budget appeared minor -- sidewalk cleaning downtown and funding for additional storage space for paperwork. Others, such as replacing cameras in police cars and upgrading lifeguard towers, appeared to be tougher items to drop.

Emergency repairs are needed to make the slide area safe before winter rains arrive. Little more than a trickle most of the year, Bluebird Canyon Creek becomes a major drainage channel in the winter.

"That has to be opened up, and it's under about 40 feet of dirt right now," Frank said.

The money is also needed to pay police, fire and building inspectors who worked overtime during the days after the slide.

The homes that were seriously damaged or destroyed need to be removed and the area graded so it drains properly if it rains. And the hillside beneath several precariously perched homes on Madison Place needs to be shored up to ensure that those homes don't fall.

City officials hope the landslide will be added to storm-related disaster declarations made in January and February. Federal geologists have concurred with city geologists that heavy rains percolating into the bedrock caused the slide. Whether individual homeowners will receive federal assistance remains unknown.

But despite the fanfare that often comes with news of federal grants, Frank said, "I hate to say it ... but the benefits for individuals aren't as great as people might think."

Although grants might total $5,000 to $10,000, he said, "for people who have lost their entire house, it doesn't help a whole lot."

Meanwhile, residents affected by the landslide were continuing their own fundraising efforts. They've put together a benefit concert featuring local bands from noon to 7 p.m. Saturday at El Morro Elementary School.

Todd MacCallum of the Bluebird Canyon Community Assn., which represents slide victims, said he was relieved to see the city committing funds to restoring the hillside.

"The longer the hill stays the way it is and those homes are empty, the worse it will be for the main economic drivers of the city: real estate and tourism. We need to protect the image of Laguna Beach," MacCallum said.

"If citizens can't have faith that government will protect their property, it'll be a bad scene," he added.

David Vanderveen, whose home on Flamingo Road is perched at the edge of the slide area, also welcomed the allocation.

"We're all in it together. If we don't protect each other's home values, then everyone's home values will diminish," he said.

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