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On Hilltop, They Fear Slope of Things to Come

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Herb Lycan lives on the edge.

Below his hilltop home on St. Thomas Drive in Cowan Heights, a mound of dirt leans against an eroding cliff, bracing against another slide like the one that sheared away part of the hill Friday.

Site work on new homes below the hill has come to a halt. Lycan and other hilltop residents say they are glad they haven’t had to evacuate. But Lycan said Monday that he nonetheless worries about what the future holds for their hilltop.

“Once you lose a slope (of a hill), it’s difficult to get equipment into an area like this to repair the slope,” said Lycan, 73.

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Lycan’s neighbor, Roy A. Butfoy, 52, said he also worries about “what might be coming next” to their hilltop residences.

“Early this morning, about 1 o’clock, there was a noise so loud coming from the cliff that my daughter called the police,” Butfoy said. “She and I thought the land might be moving again--that there might be another slide.”

Apparently the earth simply groaned, but did not move, Butfoy said. At any rate, there was not a repeat of Friday’s scare, in which several tons of dirt came crashing down, exposing concrete columns that had been used for reinforcement at a site for new houses under development a few dozen feet below the homes of Butfoy, Lycan, and two other families.

An Orange County governmental official on Monday said the earth has been stabilized sufficiently and that there is no need to remove people from their hilltop homes.

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“We don’t anticipate a need to evacuate any of the residents,” said James A. Miller, grading chief for the county’s Environmental Management Agency. “There were workers out there over the weekend, and they’ve pretty much completed the temporary buttressing as needed.”

Miller said his outlook would be less optimistic in the event of rain.

“If there were a heavy rain, it would become a major concern for us,” he said. “It could become devastating because that expansive clay in the soil (in the cliff) gets very, very slick, and the threat of sliding goes up dramatically.”

However county officials believe that hill stabilization work can be completed before fall rains hit Cowan Heights.

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“We’re having a meeting with the contractor, Rudy Gallegos, and they’re going to come up with a design to repair the hills,” Miller said. “We’re also asking that on Wednesday the contractor have a monitoring program, with sensors placed on the four lots above (facing St. Thomas Drive), to alert us to any danger of more shifts.”

Miller said the sensors “could be electronic or some sort of bubble device that detects slight movements” in the earth. The sensors will in effect serve as early-warning devices, he added.

According to residents, the main contractor has pledged to pay damages resulting from the slide. It is unclear how much that may end up costing.

Meanwhile, below St. Thomas Drive, grading work has been halted indefinitely on six new homes planned for the foot of the hill in the wealthy residential area. The new homes are planned near Lemon Hill Drive, not far from its junction with Newport Boulevard.

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Miller said construction workers put concrete posts, called caissons, into the hillside, in an effort to prevent earth slippage. But on Friday afternoon, the land nonetheless began sliding, imperiling four hilltop homes, including Butfoy’s on St. Thomas Drive.

Butfoy, a small-business owner, said Monday that he was not at home when the earthslide occurred.

“I’ve got the largest section of property that runs along the line (of the hilltop),” he said. “But they said the earth didn’t move that much to make a serious danger to my home. The officials asked for permission to drain my swimming pool . . . but the engineers later said there was no need for it.

“I am still somewhat concerned because always something can happen when you get a large (earth) movement like that, wouldn’t you think?”

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Two houses away, retiree Bill Geiger, 73, said emphatically that he is not worried, even though part of his brick retaining wall wrenched loose during the Friday landslide.

“The contractor has said we don’t have to worry about anything,” Geiger said. “He said, ‘We’ll fix everything.’ So I’m not worrying.”

Geiger, who rides an electric cart since suffering a stroke, showed visitors the damage that occurred Friday. “I knew it was going to happen,” Geiger said. “I was an engineer before I retired. And as I watched (the construction workers below the hill), I knew the hill was going to slide. I even told my wife on Friday, ‘When you come back from work, don’t touch the (retaining) wall here, because it’s going to go down today. I knew it.’ ”

At 1 p.m. Friday, the slide occured, Geiger said. “I heard a sound, and boom! It all went.”

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Next door, his neighbor Lycan pointed to the wrenched retaining wall and brick walkways at the rear of his hilltop home.

“All that is holding some of this is just the ivy right now,” Lycan said, as he gingerly stepped around loose bricks. “I’m not worried about having to evacuate, but I am worried about what’s going to happen to this slope.”


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