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125 YEARS / STATE OF DENIAL

Call us crazy; you'd be right

In Southern California, we have felt the earth tremble, seen it fall away from under our feet and felt fire hot on our faces. Yeah, so? Don't you just love the view!

April 30, 2006|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

MICHAEL Visbal's home is a three-bedroom, three-bath monument to denial.

Perched near the top of Malibu's Serra Retreat -- a Shangri-La where homes have names and plenty of breathing room -- the smallish blue house with great big views sits on a steep slope held up by 16 steel beams.

"It's worth the risk to have a slice of paradise," he says. And he means it. Last year's rains nearly sent the place tumbling into the canyon. And still, he has no plans to budge.

A lot of people would say he's crazy. But not here. Southern Californians are in love with a region that doesn't always love them back. We're enamored of flood plains that lie in the shadows of mountains and quaint towns that straddle fault lines. Santa Ana windstorms howl through the picturesque canyons, fueling fires on parched hillsides.

Yet, for more than a century, we have put up with all of it, like the spouse of a philandering mate who forgives and forgets. Neither the great floods of 1938 and 1969, nor the historic quakes of 1857, 1933, 1971 and 1994, nor the apocalyptic fires of you-name-it have deterred buyers from settling in the Southland's calamity-prone hills and valleys.

"The California Dream is so much more powerful than any potential perils," says Cal State Fullerton geography professor John Carroll. "It's easy to put disasters out of our minds."

Disaster amnesia, as social historian Mike Davis calls it, is the primary psychological tool that allows Southern Californians to build and rebuild on porous, scorched and flooded land. Talk to fire survivors and they'll tell you that they feel safest in the three years after firestorms, when the hills and canyons are stripped of vegetation and local governments step up fire-safety regulations. Then when that window closes, they tell themselves that lightning never strikes twice.

The triumph of emotion over reason isn't a new development in real estate. There's Boston's Back Bay, once an expanse of mudflats and drained by the city fathers in 1825 for more real estate to build on. And then there's New Orleans. And San Francisco.

"People don't bring to the forefront historic considerations," said Yorba Linda geotechnical engineer Greg Axten. "They look at homes with rose-colored glasses, and they shield out important information."

Axten once had a client who wanted to buy in Rolling Hills' "Flying Triangle," a fitting name for the area on the Palos Verdes Peninsula given the instability of the land.

Axten saw a crack developing on the ground in the neighborhood and a small fissure in the corral behind the house. Nonetheless, the client began the purchase process. In the middle of the paperwork, the house moved about 10 feet. Alarmed, the client burst into Axten's office, shaking, in a cold sweat, and asked what he should do.

"I all but told this guy not to buy the house," Axten recalled.

A week later, the client did buy the house, persuaded by a $60,000 seller discount. The home continued to slide. And Axten still shakes his head over it.

"There was no rational reason for this guy to make that deal."

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Really, really attached

What motivates us to buy, when the risks are so great and so obvious?

Psychologists call it "place attachment," the deep emotional bond homeowners develop for their natural environment, deeper even than ties with their neighbors and schools, said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of UCLA's urban planning department.

The connection to the land makes it emotionally difficult to leave an area and prompts irrational decisions to rebuild in neighborhoods recently ravaged by fires and floods.

About 75 miles down the coast from where Visbal is installing a 200-foot retaining wall, sinking more than a dozen 50-foot steel beams that are bolted to rock 100 feet beneath his home, Lars Roulund stood on an upper deck at his Bluebird Canyon home in Laguna Beach and contemplated his own landslide last winter, which nearly swept away his 3,000-square-foot house. He remembered the lower deck cracking beneath his feet, the sides of his house sliding down the hill, the fissures in the land, the city issuing an emergency permit and a drilling crew shoring up the sinking property just days after it started slipping.

"Although there were times when I thought the magic left the house and I wanted to sell it, the magic is back now," Roulund said. "I have no regrets, no second-guessing; I'd do it all over again without question."

Randall Bell, a Laguna Beach real estate appraiser with extensive disaster experience, is not surprised by that attitude. He says it's a rare fire or landslide client who does not rebuild.

Not only that, homeowners who lose their houses to those calamities often rebuild closer to the ocean or higher on a hill in a known fire zone. It helps if money is no object, but even those who have to struggle to rebuild often do so.

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