City officials are considering a construction moratorium for a tear-shaped area of Mystic Hills that lies above an ancient landslide undisturbed for centuries.
The proposal would be a stopgap measure until the city of Laguna Beach and owners of almost 40 properties in the fire-scorched area can reach an agreement to stabilize the hill and fund repairs estimated at $1 million.
On Saturday afternoon, City Council members met for nearly three hours with more than 65 residents who peppered two geological consultants with technical questions about the severity of the dangers posed by the newly discovered landslide.
At the meeting, City Manager Kenneth C. Frank raised the prospect of a moratorium as a temporary strategy while city and local residents consider launching a special assessment district to tax themselves for the shoring work, which--in a "worst-case scenario"--could amount to $50,000 per homeowner.
Frank, saving the moratorium suggestion for last, said, "This is one that sounds terrible. We're recommending that the council impose a temporary moratorium on the issuance of building permits in any area adjacent to the landslide."
The slide lies under a section of a hillside and is bordered on the south by a steeply dipping fault, according to the city's geological consultants, Geofirm. After the Laguna Beach fires last fall, Geofirm was commissioned to study rows of homes and vacant property above City Hall, including parts of Vista Lane, Bermuda Drive, Coronado Drive and Anacapa Way.
They concluded that with the right mix of natural forces, such as an earthquake or heavy rainstorms, the dormant landslide could rumble to life.
"The combination of an earthquake and added water could be devastating to this area," said Gary Stoney of Geofirm.
To protect the hilly neighborhood, Geofirm proposes to sink a retaining wall above Bermuda Drive and to sink in the rest of the area a series of 90-foot-deep rods and cables called "tie-backs."
The cost of defending this neighborhood from a landslide could range from $25,000 to $50,000 per homeowner, depending on how many properties ultimately are included in the troubled zone, according to Frank. The figures could drop further once the city's share of the project is determined.
Earlier estimates had ranged as high as $100,000, but Frank said that figure applied to homeowners in the heart of the landslide area who do repairs individually.
Frank added that the city will seek federal aid to subsidize costs, but held out little hope that the neighborhood could qualify for disaster relief for an ancient landslide.
"I would not count on it," said Frank, who repeatedly encouraged the residents to join together to solve the problem and whittle down the costs.
As the meeting wore on, the subdued participants listened politely, scratching notes on yellow legal pads about the risks of earthquakes and water. Many already were veterans of disaster, having endured the Laguna Beach fires that incinerated 13 of the houses in the landslide area on Oct. 27.
The key question for many was summed up by Tony Clark, a resident of Buena Vista Way.
"It's an ancient slide and something stopped it," said Clark. "Any probability that this is through sliding?"
The answer was not reassuring: "Given certain conditions, this is unstable regardless of what happened in the past."
Some residents left the meeting still wondering what was the right course.
"I haven't made up my mind yet," said Jim Rakshani, who lives on the edge of the landslide area on Coronado Drive. "I'm going to wait until the next meeting to make up my mind. It's not as bad as we all thought it was going to be. The cost is less, and I think it may even be cheaper when they're through with it."
The city has scheduled another meeting with homeowners and geologists on May 21 at 9 p.m. in City Hall. If a consensus develops, the City Council could move as soon as its May 23 Council meeting to take preliminary steps toward launching a special assessment district.