County Delays Plan for $100,000 Tax on Big Rock Homes
A Los Angeles County plan to tax Big Rock Mesa homeowners more than $100,000 each for a pumping project to stabilize their landslide-ridden community was delayed by the Board of Supervisors last week so that the property owners and public works officials can hammer out a compromise plan.
The board’s decision to postpone a vote until early November followed a heated three-hour public hearing in which county officials and an attorney who represented the homeowners in a $97-million property damage settlement accused each other of lying.
County officials, clearly still upset that they paid $35 million of the landslide settlement and another $13 million in attorneys’ fees for their part of the five-year legal battle, went so far as to track down two of their lead attorneys in the case during a lunch break and ask them to testify at Thursday’s public hearing.
The dispute centered on Supervisor Pete Schabarum’s claim that attorneys for the homeowners refused a county offer several years ago to waive all future assessments against the homeowners as part of the settlement--a charge that homeowners’ attorney Ken Chiate flatly denied.
“Like it or not, the litigation has left a sour taste in our mouths,” Schabarum said during the hearing. “And to say that all of a sudden we’re all going to rise up and be working together is a little unrealistic.”
The settlement grew out of a suit filed by the homeowners against the county and the state for having approved development on Big Rock Mesa with seepage pits and horizontal drains rather than sewers. The county’s action, they said, contributed to a rise in ground water that triggered the September, 1983, landslide on the mesa, a promontory that overlooks the ocean two miles west of Topanga Canyon. The landslide, one of the costliest in state history, destroyed or damaged almost 250 homes.
Schabarum left Thursday’s meeting before the supervisors voted 3 to 0 to continue the assessment hearing until Nov. 2. But his charges just heightened the Big Rock homeowners’ fears that the county is trying to come up with a plan to recoup its losses.
In addition to being notified of the assessment for the pumping program, Big Rock residents recently had their homes reappraised by the county assessor’s office. Many homeowners believe that the reappraisal was performed for the express purpose of increasing the amount of money the county could raise in its special assessment for the pumping project.
State law limits the amount an agency can assess property owners for an improvement project to 50% of the total value of the property in the assessment district. Before the reappraisals, the maximum allowable assessment would have been substantially below the $100,000 the county is seeking.
The county assessor’s office has denied that there is any relation between the proposed assessment and the home reappraisals.
“It doesn’t seem fair to us to have to pay tax on top of tax,” said actress Olivia Newton-John, a longtime Big Rock resident who said she was lucky to be one of the few who could afford the $100,000 assessment. “The last thing we want is to survive the landslide and be buried under the assessments.”
Would Triple Taxes
The homeowners were stunned this summer when the county revealed plans to triple their property tax bills for the elaborate water drainage system designed to reduce the possibility of another major landslide. Although the homeowners say they want to continue the water drainage program on Big Rock, they say the county’s proposal is larger than necessary and still provides no guarantees that it will stabilize the hillside.
“How can you raise taxes on the one hand and then assess us on the other?” resident Chuck Braverman told the board. “There’s no doubt that we need to continue the work, but we believe that we can do it for a much lower cost.”
County public works officials pleaded with the board to immediately approve the assessment so they can begin construction of the drainage system before the rainy season starts.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he was concerned about the size of the assessment, which he called “one of the highest I’ve ever seen.”
‘Very, Very High’
“Perhaps it would have been wiser to include them (residents) in the hiring of the consultants because, realistically, these assessments are very, very high,” Antonovich said.
Tom Tidemanson, director of public works, testified that his staff had tried, “but we have found no way to reduce costs.”
More than a dozen homeowners--some of whom live on the fringes of the proposed assessment district and others who said they simply could not afford it--pleaded with the supervisors to either reduce the assessments or remove their homes from the improvement district. Several property owners across Pacific Coast Highway complained that they should not be in the district at all since they won’t receive any benefits from the project.
If the property owners and the county cannot reach a compromise, the supervisors can impose a settlement. It would require four votes on the five-member panel, because more than 51% of the landowners have signed a petition protesting the proposed tax. However, board Chairman Ed Edelman said the county would agree to have an independent geologist review the project to see if the price of the package can be reduced.
Homeowners’ attorney John Murdock agreed to negotiate, although he originally asked the board for a three-month delay.
“Ninety days after five years of litigation and 100 million years of landslides isn’t really all that much,” he said.