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Landslide Building Ban in Doubt : Rancho Palos Verdes: Geologist may recommend allowing some construction in Portuguese Bend.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A city geologist says the 13-year moratorium prohibiting building within the Portuguese Bend landslide area may safely be lifted to allow construction of luxury homes and a golf course.

The comments from Perry Ehlig, a recognized landslide expert, are likely to escalate debate over the development of the Rancho Palos Verdes coastline.

Ehlig said there is a “good chance” he will recommend to the city in the next few weeks that some carefully controlled building is possible in limited areas within the slide zone of steep, often shifting canyons and hillsides. Landslides in the two-square-mile area have destroyed hundreds of homes over the past 35 years.

“In my view, the city probably doesn’t need a moratorium, per se, because its building code requirements are strict enough to prevent slide problems,” said Ehlig, a professor of geology at Cal State Los Angeles. The codes already require builders to show geologic proof that the land to be developed is stable and will not slide, he said.

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A blanket moratorium was placed on the 1,100-acre area in 1978 after the Abalone Cove landslide destroyed 45 homes. It has effectively barred developers from building on some of the most spectacular ocean-view sites in Southern California.

The controversy centers on Orange County developer Barry Hon, who has asked the city to lift the moratorium on 427 acres in the Peacock Hill area in the Portuguese Bend slide to make way for 25 luxury estates and a 27-hole golf course. Hon’s experts maintain that the project’s golf course will be designed to help stabilize landslide movement in the area.

“We will end up solving problems rather than creating additional problems,” said Mike Mohler, project manager for Hon.

Opponents scoff at that claim, saying the area should never be developed because bulldozing hills and filling canyons could trigger more slides in the unstable area. They contend that neither the city nor the developer has enough data to justify lifting the moratorium.

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The Peacock Hill controversy promises to become a test case: If Hon proves to the city that his project can be safely built and the moratorium is lifted for him, it would open the door for other developers, a prospect that frightens residents who want no development at all.

The two-square-mile moratorium zone includes a large, ancient landslide that moved about 100,000 years ago but that has remained stable ever since, Ehlig said. Of greater concern are three active slides that have destroyed more than 200 homes in recent years.

The 270-acre Portuguese Bend slide, triggered by county road work in 1956, is still creeping along slowly, like a glacier. The foundation of a house destroyed in that slide took decades to edge 800 feet downhill before finally falling into the ocean last year, he reported.

The Portuguese Bend slide is linked to the smaller Abalone Cove and Klondike landslides, Ehlig said. Extensive slide-abatement efforts by the city and homeowners in the Abalone Cove area have slowed that slide to a near-standstill, he said.

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Several lawsuits brought by property owners established that those landslides were triggered by county road construction. The county settled out of court, paying property owners a total of $12 million and guaranteeing the city $10 million more in bond money to repair the damage and stabilize the movement.

The city hired Ehlig after the 1978 slide to help devise ways to slow or stop the slides and to evaluate proposals by developers and property owners to take areas out of the moratorium’s restrictions.

Beneath those steep, brushy, canyon slopes, Ehlig said, the soil and rock rest on a waxy, clay-like layer of bentonite. When bentonite gets wet it becomes slippery. If the slick layer slopes steeply down, the rock and earth resting on it will slide like a glacier.

Urban development, rains, drainage from streets and septic tanks all have contributed to the slide problems in the area, he explained.

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According to Ehlig, the upper third of the moratorium zone rests on the ancient slide and is considered stable. The active slides are in the lower two-thirds of the zone and are moving at different rates, some creeping along at less than a foot a year. Other parts closer to the ocean are sliding up to six or seven feet a year, he said.

Ehlig believes that the upper slopes of the ancient slide area can be developed if developers can prove such development will not cause more problems for the lands downhill that are still moving.

“My approach is that . . . (the city) can remove the moratorium on stable, unmoving lands (like Peacock Hill) if the development there has no impact on the moving areas,” he said.

After studying the area geology, Ehlig said, he believes Hon’s proposed development could well qualify for exclusion. After getting the answers to a few minor questions, he will make a formal recommendation to the city, Ehlig said.

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“There is a good chance the moratorium can be lifted in the Peacock Hill area,” Ehlig said.

A group of property owners who call themselves Peninsula Preservation are attacking the city geologist, saying it appears he has sided with the developers.

“We are very concerned Ehlig is accepting the developer’s finding and theories because they fit his own theories,” said Christopher A. Manning, the group’s spokesman.

Manning argues that if the moratorium is lifted and the development of houses, golf course and clubhouse triggers a disastrous landslide, the city could be sued for millions of dollars.

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“It’s just not worth the risk,” said Manning, who lives uphill from the proposed development.

Donald B. Kowalewsky, a geologist hired by the group to review the developer’s findings, said the data reported by Hon’s experts was “not sufficient to justify removing the area from the moratorium.”

Kowalewsky warned that conditions under Peacock Hill “remain unknown” and that no one can be certain the area will not slide.

Mohler, the Peacock Hill project manager, disagreed, saying the developer’s extensive study shows the Peacock Hill location where the 25, $2-million luxury estate homes would be built is stable and has never slid.

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“The development of this area is a good idea,” said Ken and Lorna Burrel who live high on the bluff directly above Peacock Hill. Developers themselves, they support the Hon proposal.

City planners are waiting for Ehlig’s report before they process the application and pass it on to the City Council for a final decision, a process that could take weeks or months.

That process is likely to turn the debate around, city officials acknowledged.

“We are already moving out of science into the realm of politics,” said City Councilman Mel Hughes. “We are dealing with emotion and politics more than geology these days.”

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