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Homes Built on Cattle Graves Develop Flaws

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Times Staff Writer

Vicki Baker says she is getting a little tired of the cow humor.

No more cute bovine-themed cookie jars or milk containers, she declares. No more one-liners about cow pies in the hallway.

This is serious business. A ground sinkage problem is cracking foundations, strangely indenting lawns and putting pronounced dips in sidewalks in her modest housing tract in Long Beach.

Baker and her neighbors compare their predicament to the movie “Poltergeist,” in which spirits prey on a family whose house was built on an old graveyard.

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The difference is that residents of De Ora Way and Patero Way apparently live on a burial ground for cows, not people. There is no worry about ghosts, but some homeowners are experiencing a strange sinking feeling.

“We turned it into ‘Cow-geist,’ ” said Baker, finance director for the city of Signal Hill.

Entire Herds Destroyed

The problem stems from a peculiar detail of the history of the land, which once was the site of cattle ranches--an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in the 1920s destroyed entire herds and prompted the burial of the cattle in long trenches. The trenches were covered over, but the surfaces settled over time as the carcasses decayed, according to real estate agents and construction officials familiar with the land.

Subsidence of land is not unusual in Long Beach, which was known in the 1950s as “the sinking city.” The problem then, however, was oil drilling. It caused much of the western part of the city to settle until water was injected back into the earth to counter the effect.

Long Beach officials said this week that they had never heard of subsidence in the city due to settling over a mass grave for cattle.

But neighborhood residents do not doubt the cause--how else to explain the cow bones dug up by construction crews?

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One homeowner estimated that the trenches may go under the lots of as many as 20 houses. And a real estate agent who works in the area said she has documented nine lots in the tract that have suffered adverse effects from the trenches.

Kay Coop, an agent for JTM Brokerage Corp. in Long Beach, said she checked into the matter after one of her clients bought a house without being told by the seller of the subsidence problem in the area.

“It should have been declared,” Coop said. “Who would ever think to look for dead cows?”

Debbie Newton said her uncle found out about the cow trenches after he moved to his house in the 1960s. Now Newton, who still lives in the home, said she must pay at least $12,000 for a new foundation to counter the subsidence.

The stucco house is jacked up 4 feet so that its foundation can be replaced. A trench running under the house caused the eastern half to sink, cracking walls and making windows and doors impossible to shut. A workman found a large, unidentified bone while removing the old foundation.

“I thought I was crazy telling everybody there were cows under our house, but it was true,” Newton said.

Baker was luckier than the Newtons. Before she bought her house two years ago, an inspector tipped her that its foundation appeared to have been replaced--it was too new for a house built during World War II. She went ahead and closed the deal after an engineering study confirmed that her two-bedroom home is sound and unlikely to sink.

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Homeowner Ken Zion said he received a settlement of “several thousand dollars” from the previous owner of his house after he discovered six years ago that a corner of the garage was sinking.

Zion said he has found evidence of trenches traversing the neighborhood under yards, streets and sidewalks. He said he had to replace his driveway, but that a trench missed causing any major damage to his Patero Way house.

A 12-foot-deep sinkhole developed in an alley between De Ora Way and Patero Way about five years ago, apparently because of collapse in the trenches, Zion said.

Zion said he is convinced that city officials have been aware of the problems over the years. He points out holes in the streets and sidewalks where he believes the city collected core samples in 1969.

Zion and Newton argue that the city, in addition to the previous owners, should have informed home buyers of the subsidence.

“I think personally if it was on record in 1969 that there were problems with the land, it should have been on the title,” said Zion, a professor of industry and technology at El Camino College in Torrance. “That is a shared responsibility of the seller and the city.”

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Robert Paternoster, the city’s planning director, said no one has told him of the subsidence caused by cow trenches. Senior Deputy City Atty. Arthur Honda said he had not heard of the problem either and that, in any case, the city would not be liable.

The epidemic of hoof and mouth disease that swept through California in the 1920s is well documented. In Long Beach, it wiped out almost all the Holsteins and Guernseys that supplied milk to dairies, including one on the east side of Signal Hill near the housing tract, according to Llewellyn Bixby, chairman of the Bixby Land Co. In the mid-19th Century, his family’s ranches included virtually all of present-day Long Beach.

Bixby told an oral historian from Cal State Long Beach how his family’s herd was lost to the hoof and mouth epidemic within a week. The carcasses were bulldozed into trenches.

“We had five dairies back in those days (and) ran the Long Beach Dairy and Creamery Co.,” Bixby recalled this week. The epidemic “cut us down to one” dairy, he said.

A Signal Hill drilling company was digging holes in 1982 in a furniture store parking lot at Lakewood Boulevard and Stearns Street, just north of the two affected residential streets, when workers found cattle bones in a long, underground passageway.

Rose Helm, office manager for Barney’s Drilling, said health officials gave medicine to the workers to protect them from any bacteria remaining from the cattle plague.

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Zion said he believes that some of the trenches may be as deep as 18 feet. While he has made a special effort to find out more, he said, some homeowners may be ignorant of the problem.

“A lot of people don’t know and the other half don’t care,” he said.

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