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Homeowners seek damages from the city

Colony Hill Homeowners Association representing 40 single-family homes in La Jolla has filed a claim against the city of San Diego asking for $24 million in damages, and $9.6 million to $15 million in costs, in a dispute over an alleged faulty water main system supplying their housing development at Caminito Avola and Caminito Rialto.

The claim may be a prelude to the filing of a lawsuit against the city.

“This case concerns a water main in the Colony Hill community that has leaked on numerous occasions,” said Robert von Esch IV, an attorney with the Orange County law firm of Schroeder & Associates which has been retained by the homeowner’s association. “I personally observed several leaks in the temporary water system there, not a good circumstance when the city is alleging this is soil sensitive to movement. It is not a good idea to be putting water into that type of soil.”

Ray Palmucci, deputy city attorney, said the city is evaluating the homeowners’ claim filed against it. “A claim has been filed with the city of San Diego, and the law allows a 45-day period for the city to evaluate and respond to the claim,” he said. “We are still evaluating the claim and have not made a decision on it. We have neither accepted or denied the claim. If we deny the claim, they could choose to file litigation within a specific time period.”

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Palmucci added there will be engineers on both sides of the claim inspecting the homeowners’ site.

The Colony Hill Homeowners Association’s claim against the city was filed Aug. 6.

According to the claim report filed with the Risk Management Department of the city, the homeowners association is alleging damage to 40 homes at $400,000 per home. The estimated $9.6 million to $15 million costs are for legal fees plus interest, and will likely vary if and when a lawsuit is filed depending on how long it takes to litigate the suit.

Von Esch, representing the homeowners, said a fire hydrant supplying a temporary, high-pressure water system serving Colony Hill has constantly leaked, along with everal water service connections to some homes in the housing development. “The bottom line is there were a lot of leaks,” he said, “not a good thing when the city is saying there are sensitive soils concentrated there on-site.”

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Von Esch added the fire department visited Colony Hill recently to inspect the temporary water system serving the development. “They said it was inadequate for fire protection,” he said, noting San Diego County is now into the height of its dry fire season. He added Colony Hill is near a canyon, an especially dangerous area considering the current drought.

A letter has been sent by Von Esch to the city pointing out the fire department’s assessment of the inadequacy of water in Colony Hill in the event of fire. “I told them you guys are literally and metaphorically playing with fire,” said Von Esch.

According to Von Esch, problems with water leakage in the development first surfaced in 2006. “It actually discharged so much water that it caused a road to sink, which is now blocked off to traffic because of the sinkage,” he said. “The (water) line has saturated the road so much it has caused damage to a retaining wall in the community as well. The ground is so wet now, the hillside has moved a bit.”

The homeowners’ claim was tendered to the city more than a year ago. Von Esch said his clients were told by the city at that time, “not to worry, they (city) were going to take care of it.” Then, said Von Esch, the city did a 180-degree turnaround and told homeowners, “This is not something caused by our leaking water line. The hillside moving ... it’s your fault and you have to pay for it all: You stabilize the hillside.”

The temporary water lines along the side of the streets serving Colony Hill were characterized by Von Esch as “ugly.” Describing the mood of Colony Hill homeowners, Von Esch said: “We have a lot of angry people in the neighborhood.”

Depending on the city’s reaction to the homeowners’ claim, Von Esch said he would consider filing a lawsuit on their behalf against the city claiming inverse condemnation. “Essentially, we’d be saying the city’s water system caused the hillside to move, the road to sink and damage to the retaining wall, when leakage occurred on numerous occasions,” he said.


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