Nearly two months after the Oct. 3 landslide that collapsed Soledad Mountain Road, downing utilities and causing the emergency evacuation of 111 residents, at least three homes - and possibly a fourth - will be demolished to allow portions of the 5600 block of Soledad Mountain Road overlooking Desert View Drive to be graded.
Instead of having the affected Mt. Soledad properties condemned, however, the city has opted to raze them under a hazard abatement procedure, which means the city is not obligated to pay residents for the loss of their homes.
Meanwhile, nearly 50 individual homeowners in the affected disaster area stand poised to file lawsuits seeking damages against the city, alleging that old underground water pipes, which were improperly maintained and leaking, undermined the soil and caused the catastrophe.
On Nov. 20 , the City Council unanimously approved an emergency plan to bulldoze three homes, while attempting to save a fourth owned by Ben Foroozan, as a prelude to performing hillside slope repairs aimed at preventing a more massive landslide later.
“The litigation folks will sort out who pays for what,” said Council President Scott Peters. “The responsibility of the city is to make sure that things don’t get worse than they are, meaning, unfortunately, some of those houses have to be cleared by the city to do the work to prevent other property, homes and people from being endangered.”
Peters said the Council was sympathetic to the plight of Foroozan, who argued his earthquake-reinforced home is salvageable. “They brought in pictures that seemed to show it was pretty intact,” said Peters. “We didn’t want Mr. Foroozan to lose his home if there was any way to save it. We had to give staff the power to handle the situation, using their best judgement on what we could do. It’s a very difficult siuation. These kind of emergencies require awfully hard choices.”
John Moot, the attorney representing Foroozan, said his client has not filed a lawsuit in lieu of working with the city in good faith to try and save his home. However, he said, they are not satisfied with how the city is going about clearing the way to begin long-term structural repairs of Mt. Soledad’s slide-prone hillside.
“They are not following their own laws in doing what they’re doing,” contended Moot. “Under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, if you’re going to take someone’s property - you have to pay for it.”
Moot contended that the abatement procedure the city is using to eliminate ruined Mt. Soledad properties is legally inappropriate. He noted that summary abatement under the city’s municipal code states a home can be razed or removed only when “a direct and imminent life safety hazard exists to the general public.”
“That means someone is about to die or be seriously injured,” said Moot. “No one is about to die or be seriously injured as a result of the condition of the Foroozan house. If there had been an ‘imminent threat’ they (city) should have done something about it a long time ago. Their summary abatement procedure is simply not applicable.”
Moot said the city should have followed an administrative abatement of a public nuisance, which would have required it to notify Foroozan by letter 10 days prior to the city’s hearing to allow him time to respond. “He found out in a phone call,” said Moot.
Moot said Foroozan’s home was built with caissons, large stabilizing structures made of cement or metal buried deep in solid ground so a building can withstand earth movement. “These huge caissons support Mr. Foroozan’s house, which is intact,” said Moot. “It appears to be structurally sound. There’s no reason to tear it down.”
The other three Mt. Soledad homeowners, whose homes are now going to be razed by the city, did not appear at the Nov. 20 council hearing to contest the abatement action.
David Jarrell, the city’s interim deputy chief of Public Works, said, as of Nov. 21, that 27 of the 37 huge nail-like sheer pins the city is sinking 60-plus feet deep underground to shore up the Mt. Soledad hillside are now in place. That task is expected to be completed the first week of December.
“Then we’ll take the water and sewer lines out to see whether there’s any indication those were leaking,” said Jarrell. “We really need to focus on this emergency slope stabilization work that unfortunately requires at least three of the houses to come down. That whole land mass between where the sheer pins are being put in on Soledad Mountain Road and down below on Valley View Drive is still very unstable with fissures and cracks that could allow rainwater to penetrate into the soil and make it even more unstable.”
Jarrel said crews working under the direction of city engineers will remove 20,000 cubic yards of soil from the landslide area. “They’re doing that to flatten the slope out and make it more stable,” he said. “They’ll be putting in other drainage improvements so that water will be diverted off the slope instead of infiltrating the soil. They’re targeting the end of December to have that done.”
Next will come the reconstruction of Soledad Mountain Road, said Jarrell, which will include installation of new water and sewer lines below the restored road section. Having the landslide declared a state of emergency has allowed the city to apply for funding assistance for road repairs from both the state and the federal government. But it will be months before the road is reconstructed and open again. “I think it probably will be late spring of next year,” said Jarrell, “April through June.”
Downtown San Diego attorney Craig McClellan is representing about 15 clients on Soledad Mountain Road and Desert View Drive who intend to sue the city of San Diego in the aftermath of the landslide. Presently, he and two other attorneys from outside San Diego are representing about 47 total homeowners claiming damages in the Mt. Soledad area.
“The city had old water pipes that were leaking,” said McClellan. “The leaks are documented, and the leaks were continuous for a period of two months before this landslide occurred. There are some really persuasive pictures of Soledad Mountain Road totally covered with water looking like a lake on July 18.”
McClellan said Mt. Soledad homeowners will seek two types of damages from the city in their lawsuits. “The first type is the cost of repairing or replacing structures,” he said. “For those homes that weren’t directly hit, damages will be for the dimunition in the value of their homes. As you can imagine, there aren’t really many people willing to pay much for a home sitting adjacent to a landslide right now.”
With so many parties involved and such a complex case, McClellan estimated it could take a year and a half to resolve through the courts. He added lawsuits in the case are likely to be filed the end of this year or early in 2008.