Malibu Residents Reject Paying to Fix Slide Areas

Times Staff Writer

A community meeting to discuss ways to protect residents of Las Flores Canyon in Malibu from more landslides and ways to repair a public road destroyed by a huge 1984 slide crumbled under a pile of accusations and denials this week.

A majority of the 125 residents in the landslide area who attended the meeting Tuesday night bristled at a county proposal that property owners in the canyon shoulder 75% of the cost to restore Rambla Pacifico Road and stabilize the three major slide areas, saying that Los Angeles County should pick up most of the tab since county-approved developments triggered the landslides.

"I don't understand why the county is asking us to pay for something that the county caused," said Marvin Forrest, a canyon resident whose hillside home was one of several destroyed by one of the landslides that have plagued the area since 1978. "The county refused to do anything about the problem even though it was quite aware of the slide problems in the area."

$2 Million Suit

Forrest is one of three defendants awarded a total of $2 million in an October case in which the county was found guilty by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury of contributing to the massive landslide and failing to take measures to stop it. The county has appealed the decision.

County public works officials denied that they are responsible for any of the landslides and said they are not required to rebuild any of the roads destroyed in the area. Harry Stone, deputy director of public works, said the county's sole obligation is to provide access for emergency vehicles in the area.

The meeting in Malibu was held to discuss a new $170,000 study that offers four options, ranging in cost from $2 million to $17 million, on ways to reopen Rambla Pacifico, to stabilize the major landslide areas and to set up a system for siphoning water from the ground. The county also proposes to remove all of the septic systems in the area, which it claims contributes to the hillside instability by leaking water into the ground.

According to the report, done by geologic consultants Dames & Moore, heavy rains in 1978 combined with rising ground water from residential irrigation and septic systems, reactivated three ancient landslide areas near the mouth of Las Flores Canyon. The study--which briefly touches on the Las Flores Mesa and Calle del Barco slide areas--focuses primarily on the Rambla Pacifico slide which destroyed eight homes and an electrical substation and closed one of the major links to Pacific Coast Highway from the canyon communities.

Wolfgang Roth, the report's author, said that the study was designed to see if there was "a joint solution to problems in the three slide areas that the community could support." He said that after a series of interviews with neighborhood residents, most of them offered support for an option that would restore access to most of Las Flores Canyon, would restabilize the slide area through grading and added landfill, and would not allow any development in the restored area. The cost of the plan was estimated at $11 million.

Another option, which would cost about $17 million, would include extensive grading and "anchoring" of the hillside. Approximately $6 million of the cost could be financed through new development in the area, Roth said.

However, the proposed financing package, in which about 300 property owners would be assessed up to $36,000 for the improvements, triggered an explosion of protests at the meeting. The assessments would be based on access and usage of the new road, with the 59 homeowners living closest to the highway paying $36,000, the 70 property owners to the east paying $23,000 and residents in the Saddle Peak region paying about $16,000. The assessments would be divided over a 20-year period.

"If we pay our property taxes, we assume that the county will take care of its roads," said Glenn Ernst. "It's the county's responsibility to maintain them, especially since the county built the roads that led to the slides. Why don't you look at the assessments on that basis?"

Jennifer Gordon, a local real estate agent, said that the assessments were particularly unfair, since the damage caused by the landslides has caused homes in the area to greatly depreciate.

Stone stressed that the report was designed mainly to get response from the community. He said a specific study would be done on any of the options that the community favored and suggested that representatives of local homeowner groups form a committee with county officials to decide the best option to pursue.

"We would like to see this problem go away," Stone said. "The county is losing money because of problems. All we're doing is offering some options to consider. We're not trying to impose any solutions."

However, Forrest said that the county was guilty of dragging its feet on slide problems in the area before the huge 1984 slide and has done little to solve the problem since then.

"The problem in dealing with the county is that it always takes an adversarial position," Forrest said. "If you want something to be done, you should take legal action. I suggest that you get a class action legal suit together if you want to avoid another horror show."

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