Suit Filed Over Road : Land Claims Muddied by 11 Years of Slippage

Times Staff Writer

When land and rocks and trees move, do property lines move right along with them?

As exotic as this question might seem to some, it is the basis of a looming legal fight over who owns what near rustic Peppertree Drive within the ever-moving Portuguese Bend slide area. The combatants are the city and six property owners.

"I bought this dirt and these trees, and they belong to me," said Daphne Clarke, standing on her two acres and pointing toward the abandoned old roadway of Palos Verdes Drive South, where she says her property ends. But a freshly blacktopped new roadway lay between her and the old road, and she asserts that the new road encroaches on her land.

Not so, claims the city, arguing that some of the property Clarke and her husband claim to own is no longer theirs because land, trees, house, garden and all have slid seaward in the 11 years they have lived there.

Line Doesn't Move

"Our position is that when land slides, property lines remain the same and you don't get title to where you end up," said City Atty. Steve Dorsey. "The line goes back to where it was."

Because of this land movement, Dorsey said, the new road is on land belonging to Palos Verdes Properties, a development company which has granted the city an easement.

Saying a judge should decide who is right, the Clarkes, together with John Arnold, W. B. Simms and John and Virginia Lessing, recently filed an inverse condemnation lawsuit against the city in Los Angeles Superior Court. The Clarkes and Arnold are neighbors and the others own adjacent unimproved land.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount in monetary damages from the city for its alleged unauthorized appropriation of 50-foot and 75-foot strips from four properties for the road, which was opened a month ago to replace a stretch of the old road that had been turned into an asphalt roller coaster by the slides.

City Won Earlier Round

The city has yet to formally respond to the suit, but it did win an earlier legal round when the court refused the owners' request for a temporary restraining order blocking road construction.

"We don't want the land back," said Peter Clarke, a TRW engineer who described the suit as a matter of principle. "It is unreasonable for the city to come in and put a road where it likes."

Daphne Clarke, who works for the Abalone Cove Slide Abatement District, said she and her husband were willing to grant the city an easement and spent several weeks talking terms.

But, she said, they decided to fight on Jan. 31 when a bulldozer and work crew arrived and began grading the roadbed while negotiations were still in progress.

"I got very, very angry," said Clarke.

City Has a Case

While the Clarkes may be angry, an experienced landslide attorney in Santa Monica says that legal precedent is on the city's side. "You own a portion of the surface" said Gerrold Fadem. "If a home migrates, it belongs to the person who owns the portion (it migrates to)."

Fadem said one glaring exception to the rule resulted from an earthquake many years ago in Juneau, Alaska, in which the whole city slid about a block down a mountain. He said the Alaska Legislature decided that everyone still owned his property and the people whose homes went into the ocean were paid off by title companies.

The Clarkes contend that by seeking an easement, Rancho Palos Verdes admitted that the couple owned the land. But city officials say they did not need an easement from the Clarkes--or any of the other property owners--but wanted one to stave off possible lawsuits over boundaries.

"We were not admitting that they owned the property," said Charles H. Abbott, public works supervisor for the city. "Our position is that the land has moved, but the property lines never have."

Only Road

Abbott said the city went ahead with the road because the Clarkes prolonged the negotiations and the work "had to be done." He said the slide-damaged stretch of Palos Verdes Drive--the only artery through the slide area--was becoming impassable. "We were not trying to force anything on the Clarkes," he said.

The Clarkes, however, blame delays on the city, claiming that officials balked at writing certain conditions--notably the addition of backfill to correct drainage problems--into the easement document.

Abbott said he "did not want to go out and get a full-blown set of engineering plans for this easement." But he said the city did agree to put a drainage pipe under the new road, "which is there."

According to the Clarkes, their dealings with the city over the road began after a proposed alignment that did not affect them was changed to the present location. Shortly before Christmas, bulldozers started grading property allegedly belonging to the Clarkes and their neighbors, but the work was stopped after they protested.

"We wrote a letter to the city manager saying they could have an easement if they came to us nicely," said Daphne Clarke.

But three months later, no one is being nice about the situation.

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