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2 years since home losses, and still on shaky ground

The owners of nine red-tagged properties are suing the city of Pomona and a developer over landslide damage.

March 20, 2007|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

In a sense, the heavy rains of winter 2004-05 are still falling for Abid Karim and Keith Razza. The blue skies over Pomona this winter mock the ordeal they've endured for more than two years.

The fickleness of the climate is evident in the precipitation statistics: During the winter two years ago, an unprecedented 42.61 inches of rain descended on Pomona, causing the ground beneath Karim's and Razza's homes, as well as those of seven of their neighbors on Meadow View Drive, to shift and fall away. Their houses were either destroyed or rendered unlivable.

The rainy season was the second heaviest in Southern California history and triggered landslides that wrecked dozens of homes in the Hollywood Hills, Anaheim, Yorba Linda, Anaheim Hills, Pomona, San Clemente, Laguna Beach and, most tragically, La Conchita, where a giant mudslide killed 10 people.

This winter, fewer than 2.5 inches of rain have fallen in Pomona.

Benign weather has prevailed, in fact, since almost immediately after a rainy Presidents Day in 2005, when Karim and Razza first noticed odd geological phenomena on their properties. Ever since, a sense of dislocation and the specter of financial ruin have afflicted the homeowners, whose wealth, like that of many Southern Californians, existed principally in the value of their houses. Standard homeowner insurance policies do not cover damage from landslides.

"If I end up with financial liability for this," said Razza, 49, an electrical equipment salesman, "it would basically ruin me, and I would think it would do the same to the other families."

The homeowners initially filed claims against the city of Pomona, contending that a landslide on the city-owned slope behind their houses caused their property to sink, in some cases undermining homes so drastically that they were declared public nuisances and quickly demolished. The city rejected the claims.

The homeowners' hopes now rest with a pending lawsuit against the city and the developer of their subdivision in the Phillips Ranch area.

The failed slope behind the houses on Meadow View is owned in part by the city and in part by Pacesetter Business Properties, which grew from the firm that originally developed the homes.

Irvine attorney Michael Hearn, who represents the nine homeowners who brought the lawsuit, said the slope was the site of an old, inactive landslide that the developer should have repaired. Hearn said the 2005 slide was very similar to the previous landslide.

In legal documents, the city denied being liable for the damage.

"The issue is, did our land really slide?" said Anaheim lawyer Robert Gokoo, who is representing the city in the case. "It came down on our land, but the head scarp of the landslide is located on the homeowners' property. It's very well defined. That's where the landslide started."

The slope was part of the attraction of the hillside neighborhood. It was a greenbelt with a bracing view of the San Gabriel Mountains.

After a winter of voluminous rain, the city's part of the slope, the homeowners contend, slid down and away, causing the earth above it to begin to sink.

"It was raining that day. I came back early from work, looked at the backyard and saw a lump running through it like a straight line," recalled Karim, 41, a project manager for a dental specialties company and an immigrant from Pakistan. "It didn't make sense to me. The next morning when I got up, the bump was more profound. I just went to work. I didn't know what to do."

Razza, whose house is two doors up from Karim's, was alerted to something amiss the next night. The neighbor whose home was between Razza's and Karim's came knocking and reported that "he had a 3-inch crack going through his house and that Abid's backyard had dropped 3 feet," Razza said.

Upon inspection, Razza discovered that the crack from his neighbor's house ran up to his own property and along the entire back of his house's foundation. "I didn't know what was causing it," he said. "I didn't know what the hell was going on."

What ensued for Razza and Karim the next day had a tinge of the surreal. They arrived home from work to find their street blocked by emergency vehicles. They were told by city officials that their houses would be red-tagged and that they must quickly remove whatever belongings they could and leave the premises.

They didn't know where to start. Karim instructed his wife to put in a plastic garbage bag the 10 most important things in each room. "Then I realized I had no place to put all the bags," Karim said.

Razza painted in white block letters on his brown garage door, along with his phone number: PLEASE HELP!

The message, he said, was intended for "just about anybody, pretty much" and was indicative of the confusion and helplessness that gripped all the affected homeowners.

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