After more than five years, the Flying Triangle landslide here remains a slide in search of a solution. But attempts to find one are being stepped up, the result of pressure from residents in the slide area and the actions of a new city manager.
The City Council, whose role since the slide started has been limited largely to monitoring land movement and passing information on to the affected homeowners, has agreed to study the feasibility of a plan to fill two canyons that the slide is moving into.
The plan was proposed by Frederic W. Hartwig, an engineer and Flying Triangle resident who, in an effort to save his home, has put it on heavy steel beams that shift with the land.
Nearly 30 Flying Triangle residents jammed council chambers last week and strongly urged the council to give the Hartwig proposal a chance.
Hartwig contends that filling Klondike and Paintbrush canyons with compacted topsoil would "stop the toe of the slide" and that, in turn, would halt land movement above it. He said that fees charged to contractors for dumping excess soil into the canyons could more than pay for the operation.
Los Angeles County geologist Arthur G. Keene, who monitors the slide for the city, agrees that both canyons should be filled in an effort to halt the slide.
Hartwig has drafted a detailed proposal only for Klondike, near his home, but he said the same concept could apply to Paintbrush. According to the proposal, 224,000 cubic yards of soil would be needed and it would cost $150,000 to place and compact the soil. Additional costs, including drainage and a connector road to bring trucks from Crenshaw Boulevard, would increase costs to $253,500. A $1.50-per-cubic-yard charge to contractors dumping soil excavated from job sites would produce $337,000, he said.
Meanwhile, City Manager Terrence L. Belanger has put out feelers for state and federal money to combat the slide, but officials concede that this is a long shot.
"The prospects are very slim, because of the fact that we are a private community, and given the reluctance for the state and federal governments to hand out money," said Mayor Tom Heinsheimer. "It is a process we have to go through, because we want to exhaust every possible alternative."
A private, gated city of 2,300 that has no public roads, Rolling Hills--where tennis courts mingle with horse stables and some homes qualify as rustic estates--has one of the wealthiest populations of any American city, with a median income of $75,000. Roads are maintained through assessments by the community association, which regulates deed restrictions in the city.
City officials, however, are optimistic that even if Rolling Hills is unable to get government money, it may obtain technical assistance from the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the slide area and determine how to stop it. The city has asked Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) to pursue its request to the Corps of Engineers.
Belanger said that aside from government help, he would like to find an engineering company that would study the landslide, devise something to stop it and "stake its reputation that it will work, and pursue it."
"We need an analysis of the feasibility of our being able to do anything, to answer the question, can we arrest this thing?" Belanger said. "We need someone to not only describe what is happening, but to offer solutions if they exist. . . . We might get an opinion that we can't stop it."
Belanger, who started working for the city Dec. 1, said the possible sources of public money he has identified include low-interest loans that could be made available to property owners experiencing slide damage if the Flying Triangle were declared a disaster area.
The city also is inquiring whether it would be eligible for state gasoline-tax funds if it were to designate one of its private roads a public street.
Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando (R-San Pedro) has agreed to carry legislation for the city seeking state money to stop the slide if the city develops a plan.
Last year, a Felando bill was passed by the Legislature granting $2 million to Rancho Palos Verdes to finance a project to slow or stop a 30-year-old landslide in Portuguese Bend, which lies below the Flying Triangle. Work is to begin this summer on the project, which combines the shifting of tons of soil to reduce land movement and the installation of canyon drains.
Rolling Hills officials say the probability that the city will not sacrifice its private roads essentially rules out gas-tax money. And the lack of public facilities would make it difficult to follow in the footsteps of Rancho Palos Verdes, which obtained its grant based on the need to stabilize a public road--Palos Verdes Drive South--and protect the public coastline.
"We have no public property in distress," Belanger said.
Land movement in the Flying Triangle--a sloping, sea-view area on the southern border of the city that is reached by Portuguese Bend Road--was first detected by Los Angeles County geologists in 1980. Confined at first to about 11 acres, the slide has grown to encompass 60 acres. It has destroyed five homes and six more are seriously undermined, according to the city.
Geologist Keene reported recently that the east portion of the slide has accelerated "and is moving ever faster" into Klondike Canyon. He said the movement on the western portion of the landslide, toward Paintbrush Canyon, is slower.
Some in the Flying Triangle contend that the city is invoking the privacy issue to excuse it from tackling the slide. "All cities have private property," said Hartwig.
Flying Triangle resident Herb Agid called the neighborhood a "disaster area where people are being wiped out by the loss of their homes" and said that if sacrificing privacy is what is necessary to stop the slide, then the city should do that.
Could Open Crest Road
"We desperately need help," he said. "As far as being a gated area, I don't care if they have traffic through or not. If it means the federal or state government will come in and help us by removing the gates, I'm for it."
Agid said the city could open up Crest Road, a ridge-top street that spans the city, if keeping it private precludes help.
But Mayor Heinsheimer said, "It's very unlikely the city would like to change its status as a private community in exchange for government funds."
Asked if the city would ever give up its gates or private streets, one official said, "Hell, no."
Belanger said the city has consistently maintained that it has "no dominion" in the Flying Triangle, because all property there--including the roads and canyons--is private. "But that does not mean the city is precluded from taking some positive steps to seek out resources that could result in solutions. Ultimately, any Flying Triangle solution will have to involve all who own property."
He said the city could do work by obtaining easements from property owners.
The council said its major concern about the Hartwig proposal is whether the city can legally undertake it. "Can it be legally financed on private property?" Heinsheimer asked.
The council also wants to know if it can shield itself from liability in the event that stabilization does not occur. Jenkins said this is possible if everyone who could be affected by the landslide signs waivers.
As a way around the private-property problem, City Atty. Michael Jenkins has proposed that the city make another attempt to form an assessment district to tackle the landslide. This idea was rejected by a majority of property owners a few years ago when the entire city was included within the district. Boundaries of any new district have not been determined.
He said a district would be able to raise funds, collect assessments, perform work, purchase property and administer outside funds.
"It allows the city to participate without having the liability it would have it it went in as the first party," said Councilman Godfrey Pernell.
But Flying Triangle residents have strongly rejected the district on grounds that it would be under council control and could engage in litigation and put liens on property.
Hartwig said there are only 28 families in the Flying Triangle, which is insufficient for fighting the landslide.
Residents were equally adamant in objecting to a city request that they install above-ground septic thanks by April 15. The city sent letters to residents urging that step after geologist Keene said that Flying Triangle homes, which have cesspools, should convert to above-ground septic tanks to prevent water seepage into the landslide plane.
Road Not Stable
Residents argued that there is no evidence that the amount of water from cesspools has an impact on the slide to justify the cost and inconvenience of the tanks. They also are concerned that Portuguese Bend Road, which must be continually repaired by the association because of land movement, may not be able to handle trucks needed to periodically pump out the tanks.
Belanger recently expressed concern that firefighting apparatus might not be able to get through on the road if it develops steeper slopes. The association is planning to realign a hairpin turn near Ranchero Road because of sinking ground.
Litigation has hovered over the Flying Triangle since it began widening in 1984. And the proliferation of lawsuits--in which residents have sued the city, the county, consulting engineers and each other--has been cited as the reason little has been done to stop the slide.
Officials said any party named in the suits, including the city and residents, have been reluctant to do remedial work on the Flying Triangle because that could be interpreted as admitting fault.
"The less you do, the safer you are," Hartwig said.