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Slipping Hill in Calabasas Endangers 2 Luxury Homes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two luxury hillside homes are slowly sliding to the ground below and are in danger of being destroyed by a landslide that is moving at a rate of about two inches per day.

Geologists worked feverishly Friday in the spring sun, trying to figure out what is causing at least one of the homes on Linden Terrace to move and how to stop it.

Zareh and Rahel Vartivarian, who moved into the six-bedroom, $2-million home in this gated development five years ago, said they have been plagued with slope trouble since the Northridge earthquake, but that the real damage didn’t emerge until about five weeks ago after a heavy El Nino-spawned storm.

Small cracks in the driveway and patio grew to the point that the concrete was separating from the house, Zareh said. The couple said they have spent about $50,000 determining how to fix the problem.

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The home was red-tagged as unsafe for occupancy one week ago.

At least five geologists--two hired by Vartivarian and his insurance company, two by his neighbor and his insurance company and one hired by the city of Calabasas--still don’t know if the home can be saved.

While Calabasas officials acknowledge that there have been slippage problems in the past on hillsides in the city, the Linden Terrace case is the first attributed to this season’s El Nino storms.

In Los Angeles, though, David Keim, principal building inspector for the city, said at least 113 homes have been red- or yellow-tagged and have sustained $12.5 million in El Nino storm damage.

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At least 50 of those have been in the San Fernando Valley; the most recent were five in West Hills in February and one in Studio City in March.

When Zareh noticed five weeks ago that the house was separating from the backyard, he said, “The first thing I did was move the pictures of my children. In my native land, Beirut, I lost all my childhood pictures in the civil war. I didn’t want that to happen to theirs.”

While there are a number of million-dollar homes on this cul-de-sac in the Mountain Park gated community, officials said that only one other neighbor’s house is in danger of slipping.

The owner of that home, former Dodger third-baseman Hubie Brooks, refused to comment on the situation Friday, but a geologist hired to inspect the Brooks house said the property is showing signs of trouble.

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Geologist Mark Swiatek said there are cracks in Brooks’ driveway and the backyard is covered with tarps to keep rain from soaking into the ground. Swiatek said he will recommend that the owners pump excess water out of the ground in an effort to slow the slide.

The Vartivarian home is sliding east down the hill behind it.

When utility pipes started bursting and their house was yellow-tagged in early April, the couple and their three children moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Warner Center.

To slow descent of the house, a construction crew demolished the attached garage, which was sinking faster, and a section of the backyard.

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Zareh said that when he bought the house unfinished and in foreclosure, he said he didn’t have a geologist inspect the home because he thought it was built on solid ground.

Jonathan Sagherian, a civil engineer hired to evaluate the damage and devise a plan to fix it, said geologists have not yet determined how wide and deep the slide is.

“We’re trying to present all of the information to [Vartivarian] for him to be able to weigh his options,” he said. “The longer it takes [to evaluate], the bleaker it looks. This is not a situation you can wait to solve two months from now.”

If left unchecked, the home might eventually slide onto county property, which was purchased last year by the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation to hold as open space.

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Jim Park, chief of planning for the department, said county officials have been on the site and are monitoring the slide.

He said that his department will cooperate with the owners when they determine what needs to be done to shore up the hillside.

Despite the cost and work ahead of them, Zareh said he and his family are determined to fix the house and hope to move back by the end of the year.

“I love this place and I want to fix it and stay,” he said. “I’m not going to walk away from paradise. Even paradise has its own heartaches, but it’s worth it.”

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L.A. inspector Keim said that homeowners should not be lulled into a false sense of security now that the storms are waning.

Problems caused by rainstorms may go undetected for months as water seeps lower into the soil and reaches bedrock. He said the city will be on alert for new slide reports through May and possibly into June.

“Sometimes slides can occur weeks after the rain subsides,” he said. “I’d like to say that wasn’t true, but history says it is.”


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