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City could pay $4.5 million in erosion case

In a tentative settlement that still must be ratified by the City Council, homeowners in Soledad Mountain’s La Jolla Alta development will be paid $4.5 million in two installments from the city to compensate them for emergency repairs they made to a 94-acre canyon they own which suffered erosion damage caused by the city’s storm-drain system.

The storm-drain system was built to service the sprawling La Jolla Alta complex, comprised of 597 individual members in five separate communities - Emerald Cove, Crystal Bay, Ventana and Eldorado 1 & 2. Located southwest of Alta La Jolla Drive on the southwesterly side of Mount Soledad, La Jolla Alta has been under development since the mid-'70s.

In February 2007, Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn found in favor of The La Jolla Alta Master Council, a seven-member homeowners association governing board, and against the city, in the homeowner’s lawsuit filed in 2003 contending the city “failed to act reasonably in the operation of its storm drainage system.”

Quinn’s ruling found the city of San Diego to be 100 percent liable for storm drain damage to the canyon owned by La Jolla Alta. Her ruling stipulated the city “may be required to pay substantial repair costs needed to correct damages affecting an open space canyon owned by the association.”

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Canyon damage was caused by streetwater spilling into the canyon at very high velocity from culverts, which washed away 40 feet of the canyon bottom. The erosion was believed to be undermining homes near the edge of the canyon. It was the homeowners’ contention that 20 times more rainfall than what would occur naturally went into the canyon through the city’s stormdrain system wearing down the topography of the canyon and endangering plant and animal species living there.

Last year, at the behest of their master council, La Jolla Alta residents passed a special assessment of $4,020 per household to repair existing canyon damage which experts advised them was already endangering several homeowners’ properties overlooking the canyon.

“All we were after was to get the city to acknowledge that the canyon was part of their storm-drain system, that they were responsible for any repairs, restoration or maintenance of their storm-drain system, and that they needed to fix the damage that had already occurred to their storm-drain system, as well as pay us for the $2.4 million in emergency repairs we had to make to the canyon,” said Gary Roth, La Jolla Alta Master Council president. “We didn’t get what we wanted, we were short of what we wanted. We didn’t want to have a second jury trial and have the city appeal the second trial. You never know what the jury is going to award.”

Roth noted court appeals are costly and lengthy, sometimes stretching the legal process out an extra two or three years. “Both sides chose a compromise settlement,” he said. “Neither side is walking away feeling as though it was a great settlement. It was a reasonable settlement from our standpoint. And the city makes the permanent repairs now to the canyon.”

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Roth added the city has until 2011 to obtain the necessary permits and make permanent repairs to La Jolla Alta’s storm-water damaged canyon. As part of the settlement, the city will assume any liability stemming from the repairs, as well as the obligation to maintain storm drains in the canyon.

Maria “Mia” Severson, chief deputy city attorney general litigation, said it’s premature to say the La Jolla Alta canyon issue has been “settled.”

“The parties have reached a tentative settlement subject to City Council approval,” Severson said. “That will be docketed with proper notice in open session within the next several weeks.”

Severson the city had argued in court that, since the canyon was owned by La Jolla Alta, that it was their obligation to maintain it. “The city had maintained its storm drains,” Severson said, “and this canyon was part of the natural watercourse.”

In Judge Quinn’s ruling, said Severson, the city was found to be liable for canyon repairs because of inverse condemnation, a “taking” of private property. “The erosion damage to their property was considered to be a taking, an inverse condemnation,” Severson said.

Roth said the homeowners association was told by experts some time ago that emergency repairs to fix the canyon would cost about $8 million, adding that figure might be an underestimate since the city decided that drop structures involved in repairs to slow water runoff down into the canyon would need to be designed for 50-year rains, as opposed to 10-year rains, as originally proposed.