Contested Razing of Levee Begins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After nearly four years of courtroom skirmishes, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills and one episode of tractor vandalism, it all came down to a single piece of machinery called an excavator.

At 10:15 a.m. Thursday, grading began and the excavator took its first swipe into the Deer Creek Levee in Rancho Cucamonga to make way for 40 custom homes.

The 15-foot levee has been the focus of a dispute between property owner Bob Cristiano and builder Lauren Development on one side and two homeowners associations and an environmental group on the other. The fight has centered on plans to remove the levee, built in the 1930s, which overlooks a 25-acre development site above an upscale neighborhood.

A key issue was whether the nearby Deer Creek Debris Basin is deep enough to handle a 100-year flood, a catastrophe that has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. Critics of the project contend that the levee is necessary to protect nearby homes from flooding.

In the last three years, opponents of the project have filed 19 unsuccessful legal actions against the city, Cristiano and Lauren Development to try to halt it. The battle has also drawn in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the office of the state superintendent of schools, the state Office of Emergency Services and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

"I'm happy and relieved the legal war is over," Cristiano said. "Now we can finish what we started to do four years ago."

Critics of the project cited a study by Exponent Failure Analysis that called into question the safety of the debris basin as a reason not to remove the levee. However, the Army Corps, which designed the basin, reaffirmed its certification of the basin last year and released an independent safety study by a consultant who concluded that the basin would withstand a 100-year flood.

The first phase of the housing project, construction of a channel to control water flow on the land, was completed. In April, someone vandalized one of the tractors.

Earlier this month, Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C., and the Virginia-based National Wildlife Federation filed suit against the federal government. The groups are seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the project. A hearing is set for Monday.

The suit says the U.S. government holds title to any series of ditches, canals and levees it has built that provide flood control, water conservation and wildlife habitat, said William Snape, the group's attorney. "The government owns this levee and they cannot just stand back and allow a private developer to destroy it," he said.

Deputy City Engineer Shintu Bose said Cristiano got permits to bring the levee down months ago, provided the channel was operational. City inspectors signed off on the channel's readiness Wednesday, Bose said.

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