P.V. Estates, Homeowners Await End of Landslide Case


On a sunny Easter in 1983, a huge chunk of the cliff high above picturesque Bluff Cove gave way in a crashing avalanche of Palos Verdes Peninsula rock and dirt.

“It sounded like a sonic boom,” recalled Dr. Nona Emery, a general practitioner who lives with her husband, a surgeon, above the pounding surf in Palos Verdes Estates. Part of their back yard fell to the rocky beach 200 feet below, leaving pipes and broken fences dangling on the cliff side.

Along with 11 neighbors whose expensive bluff-top properties were damaged or destroyed in the spectacular Bluff Cove landslides nearly a decade ago, the Emerys sued the city, blaming a faulty storm drain for the cliff’s collapse.


The landslide and judgments in a dozen lawsuits have turned into a financial nightmare for this woodsy, upscale city of 13,500 on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The city has ended up buying seven of the pricey homes, four of which are now occupied rent-free by city employees.

To date, the drama has cost the city and its insurance companies $14 million in court judgments and negotiated settlements, and there is more to come. A jury awarded the Emerys $1.7 million in 1988, the city appealed and a final decision is being awaited in the case.

Only three homes were destroyed when the bluffs collapsed along parts of Paseo del Mar and Palos Verdes Drive West, but geologists predicted that the other houses could eventually go over the edge. Those predictions sent property values on these million-dollar-plus homes plummeting, experts testified.

From the outset, the courts agreed that the city was to blame because its storm drains had washed away the base of the cliff, triggering the slides. The only question that remained was how much Palos Verdes Estates should pay.

The city spent $1 million defending itself and negotiating settlements in the 11 cases, only to run into new problems. The insurance companies carrying the city’s liability policies balked at paying, and the city filed suit against the carriers.

“The responsibility for the whole $14 million is still very much up in the air,” said George Wise, the city’s insurance lawyer. Though the city won an initial round in this legal battle, the insurance firms appealed. A decision is pending.

The Emerys are refusing to settle for less than the $1.7 million the jury awarded them. And the couple have filed a second lawsuit, a $5-million civil rights action claiming that city officials and the police are harassing them in an attempt to force a settlement of the first suit.

The second suit was filed after a bizarre series of events in 1989 that ended with Clyde Emery being hauled off to jail in handcuffs for leaving trash bags in his driveway.

The city has an ordinance against leaving the trash out. Emery refused to sign the police citation and was arrested. He was later released on $250 bail, records show.

The couple claimed the police were trying to intimidate them, but city officials contend the arrest had nothing to do with the court battle. Police did acknowledge, however, that the Emerys are the only people who have ever been cited for violating the 30-year-old trash ordinance. The district attorney dropped the charges.

Although the city settled with all of the other property owners, paying as much as $1.8 million to buy individual homes, it offered the Emerys only $200,000 in damages, the couple reported.

“They want us to settle for less than the jury awarded,” said Nona Emery. The couple want the full amount, and the city wants title to the property. The city took title to seven of the other houses, and it conceivably could tear the houses down and convert the property into a park.

“From the outset, the Emerys wanted more money than the city was willing to pay,” explained Robert Wadden, a lawyer for the city. He denied that the city was trying to coerce or harass the couple and said the civil rights suit was “without merit.”

Asked why the Emerys were cited for leaving the trash out, he said the city takes its aesthetics “very seriously.”

C. Peter Anderson, a lawyer who represents the Emerys, scoffed at that claim, contending that the Police and the city were using “selective enforcement” to intimidate his clients.

As a result of the court’s determination of Palos Verdes Estates’ liability, the city has had to spend additional millions upgrading its faulty storm drains. And it now owns three vacant lots and seven expensive bluff-top homes that probably can’t be sold for any price, officials report.

Three of the houses are occupied by the original owners, who agreed to sell if they could live out their lives there. The remaining four homes are used to house the city manager, the police chief, and four police officers who share two houses rent-free. They live in 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot, five- or six-bedroom homes with sweeping views of Santa Monica Bay and Malibu.

City Manager James Hendrickson explained the unusual rent-free arrangement came about for two reasons. First, the houses were vandalized when they were empty and needed to be protected. Second, there is no affordable housing in this affluent city for police officers or, for that matter, the police chief or the city manager.

It was the City Council that agreed to allow the city staffers and police to live in the bluff-top homes, as long as they agreed to maintain the properties.

Although there is some concern about the safety of the homes, city officials believe there is little danger that the houses will slide off the cliff because they are secured by pilings. The 1983 landslide caused several houses to hang precariously off the bluff, but none went over the side.

Hendrickson said the use of the five-bedroom home was part of his negotiated salary. He has spent $12,000 repairing and painting the five-bedroom house that he and his family have occupied for two years, he said.

What will happen to the city-owned cliff-top land and the houses?

The vacant lots may be turned into a park. As for the existing houses, Hendrickson said, “We’re not sure. A lot depends on how the lawsuits with the insurance companies come out.”