The slow-moving landslides that have destroyed dozens of homes on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in recent years have spared the home of Edgar and Virginia Doak.
But the Doaks and residents of two nearby houses fear they may have to move anyway because a slide is turning their communal driveway into a gravel-strewn roller coaster that could soon become impassable. "The road is so bad now that I dread it," Virginia Doak said. The slide is "moving pretty fast and it's hard to keep up with."
The Doaks and their neighbors want to build another driveway, but they face opposition from other neighbors who fear that the work could trigger another slide and undermine their homes.
"Too bad we all can't stick together in times of need," said Herb Agid. He and his wife Lucy and the owner of a third home, Grace Nixon, share the driveway with the Doaks. "We are the desperate victims of the slide. The constant need to keep this road open is getting beyond our capability."
The slide began to bend and crumple the driveway about three years ago. Last year the Doaks, the Agids and Nixon spent more than $10,000 trying to keep it passable. The Doaks and the Agids have both purchased four-wheel-drive vehicles.
In June, each household received a letter from the county Fire Department warning that the condition of the driveway impaired "the department's ability to provide firefighting and rescue services."
The warning was especially significant because Edgar Doak is in his 80s and the other residents all are at least 60. The Doaks both walk with canes. Two weeks ago rescue personnel had to park their vehicles on Portuguese Bend Road, where the 1,250-foot drive begins, and walk to the Doak residence to assist Edgar Doak, who had fallen out of bed.
Assistant Fire Chief Ray Brunstrom said the driveway has become too steep for fire trucks. "In all fairness to the folks, they didn't do this to themselves. It came upon them," Brunstrom said.
The property owners hired South Bay Engineering in Palos Verdes Estates to draw up plans for an alternate driveway to run east from the properties to Crest Road, at a cost of between $100,000 and $150,000, with the property owners footing the bill. The engineering firm is experienced in the peculiar problems presented by slides on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, said engineer Douglas McHattie, who has headed the driveway project.
On June 6 the Rolling Hills Community Assn. granted the Doaks, the Agids and Nixon permission to build a 1,400-foot-long, 14-foot-wide driveway on an association easement to Crest Road. The community association has authority over all easements in Rolling Hills, a private, gated community where there are no public roads.
"The association saw the need and granted it on that basis," said Lowell Lusk, a member of the board of directors. He said the association had no further comment on the dispute.
To build the driveway, the property owners must also obtain variances from city grading and slope ordinances. On July 23 the city's environmental review board determined that an environmental impact report on the proposed driveway must be completed before variances can be granted.
That could take months and cost $25,000 or more, with no guarantee of getting the variances, said Dick Anderson, a city consultant. And even if the residents get the variances, nearby property owners who oppose the project could take legal action. So the request for variances is on hold until the residents decide what to do.
Chief opponents to the project are Linda and Derwyn Severy, whose seven-acre home site is next to the proposed driveway. Their attorney, Rolling Hills resident Milan D. Smith Jr., said the driveway would cross two ancient slide areas and might reactivate them.
"Given the history of that area and given the fact that this is a geologically sensitive area, to be putting in a heavy 14-foot concrete driveway across two ancient slide areas is just nutty," he said. "It doesn't make any sense at all.
"If the City Council and the people voted to do this and ultimately they were to prevail in court, they're still facing the possibility that they may be triggering a whole new set of land movements, which would inevitably result in multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the city and the community association. We already have plenty of those and in each case there is the allegation that the permits were granted when they shouldn't have been. If they can't learn from that, then they're not very bright," he said.
At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed against the city, claiming that it was negligent in allowing construction in geologically sensitive areas.
Severy said he also was concerned about erosion from water running off the driveway.
Smith said a petition against the driveway has been signed by 30 residents who believe that it would adversely affect their property.
Virginia Doak said she and her immediate neighbors have asked the engineering firm to determine whether a temporary driveway could be built on another part of their property. None of the residents wants to move from their homes, which are perched on hills and command breathtaking views of the Pacific. The Doaks and the Agids have lived in their homes for 25 years and Nixon in hers for at least 15. But Doak said they may have no alternative but to move.
"The thing that hurts so much," Virginia Doak said, "is the fact that our property is intact and our home is intact and it's pretty hard to walk away from an intact building.
"We have to have some access. So we will do something. Surely with all the great engineering minds they can come up with something," she said.
"I feel trapped," Herb Agid said. "But this is my home and I love it and I'm going to struggle with the problem to exist here as long as I can."