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La Jolla homeowners want canyon returned to normal

Now that the courts have determined the city of San Diego is responsible for erosion damage caused to a 94-acre canyon owned by La Jolla Alta homeowners, what remains to be determined is the dollar amount homeowners will be awarded to fix the ongoing environmental problems.

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 contending the city “failed to act reasonably in the operation of its storm drainage system.”

The storm drain system was built to service the sprawling La Jolla Alta complex, which has been under development since the mid-'70s.

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, which is located southwest of Alta La Jolla Drive on the southwesterly side of Mount Soledad in La Jolla.

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Judge Quinn’s February 2007 ruling also stipulated the city “may be required to pay substantial repair costs needed to correct damages affecting an open space canyon owned by the association.”

However, the damages phase of the trial was delayed until Oct. 15. Meanwhile, The La Jolla Alta Master Council has been told by experts it needs to do something now to repair existing severe canyon damage that may already be imperiling several homeowners’ properties overlooking the canyon.

Responding to that environmental “challenge,” the homeowners association’s master council passed an emergency assessment on July 31 calling for the 597 individual members in La Jolla Alta’s five separate communities - Emerald Cove, Crystal Bay, Ventana and Eldorado 1 & 2 - to pay $2.4 million collectively - $4,000 individually - to conduct canyon repairs and then be reimbursed once damages are awarded by the courts in the homeowners association’s successful lawsuit against the city.

“All we want is the city to do the right thing and return this canyon to its original state,” said Gary Roth, La Jolla Alta Master Council president. “We (homeowners) didn’t want to go through this process (litigation). We just want to enjoy our peace and quiet. If the city had maintained their easement (through the canyon), we wouldn’t be in this situation. But they didn’t.”

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La Jolla Alta homeowner Gary Sutton, who voted in favor of the July 31 emergency assessment, agreed that the canyon’s erosion poses a serious threat to homeowners and the surrounding natural environment.

“The court and the judge found the city has damaged the canyon by dumping street water into the canyon through some culverts at very high velocity, which has washed away 40 feet of the bottom of the canyon,” said Sutton. “I’ve walked the canyon, and it has become dangerous, scary. Without repairs, homes on the edge will plunge over the side some day. It’s only a question of when the next rain will come to trigger this collapse. Undeniably homes - and lives - are threatened.”

Master Council President Roth said the funneling of water by the city’s stormwater system through La Jolla Alta has created hazardous conditions which are progressively wearing away the canyon, eroding its foundation. “As a result of this, 20 times more rainfall than the natural rainfall of that canyon goes into that canyon from the development,” he said, adding the canyon contains endangered plant and animal species which are suffering as well. “The city has an easement that runs down the middle of the canyon. The city could have put a cement pipe down the middle. But they chose to leave the canyon in its natural state.

“Our job (master council) is to mitigate risk and liability. So we have to act on the advice of our attorneys and experts to invoke emergency repairs while this litigation takes its course. That’s what we’ve done. We have no choice.”

Roth said the homeowners association was told by experts some time ago that emergency repairs to fix the canyon would cost about $8 million. But, he added, the city is changing the rules of the game, and is now requiring stricter standards for the repair of the canyon.

“The conditions in the permitting process keep changing,” said Roth. “The drop structures involved to slow the water runoff down were designed for a 10-year rain. Now the city’s telling us they must be designed for a 50-year rain. Designing for a 50-year rain, the cost is going to be significantly more now than it would have been then.”