Not long after he moved to California, John Monks bought three acres of land on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on which he planned to build a home with enough land to indulge his joy of gardening, where his kids could grow up, and he and his wife could retire.
The land in Portuguese Bend had a 180-degree view of the ocean, and on a clear day, Catalina seemed so close it felt like you could walk there.
“It was probably my father’s favorite place to be,” said Monks’ son Dennen. “My father desperately wanted to live there.”
Monks knew he couldn’t build immediately, since Rancho Palos Verdes had mostly banned new homes in the area since 1978 after a landslide further down the hill destroyed 45 houses. City officials had assured him over the years that the moratorium would be eased, his son said, but in 2002 it instead was toughened. Monks and 14 other property owners sued.
Then, in a decision last year that stunned city officials, the moratorium was upended when a state appeals court ruled that the city had to give building permits to Monks and the other property owners, or buy their land.
For Monks, it came too late. He died two months after the ruling. But the decision could have a dramatic effect on some of the most majestic coastal land on the Southern California coast. Those who have followed the moratorium battle say that although the judge’s ruling clears the way for building homes on only 16 lots, a building explosion could follow.
“Yes, indeed. We are talking about a building boom,” said Martin Burton, attorney for a group of Portuguese Bend residents who are suing to make it more difficult to build. “Those 16 homes are just the start.”
The ruling, some say, could lead to scores of new homes on the Palos Verdes headlands, ushering in a spectacular payday for those who have held land there for years and change the lifestyle of a community that is more rural and eccentric than the rest of the peninsula.
Because of the moratorium, Portuguese Bend is one of the last coastal areas in Southern California to escape large-scale development. In sharp contrast with the rest of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, it is an odd blend of wide-open land and smaller homes, a place where structures rear up on one side of the street but not the other.
In addition to the 16 lots cleared for development, there are more than 130 lots in the area on which owners would like to build, including a spread of more than 120 acres on which developer Jim York hopes to build as many as 100 luxury homes.
“This is the last remaining open piece of oceanfront land in L.A. County,” York said, standing on a bluff overlooking the ocean. “There’s nothing like this.”
Rancho Palos Verdes plans to hire a panel of experts to recommend where in the city’s 1,200-acre landslide moratorium area it is safe to build.
The fight over construction in Portuguese Bend and environs has been a heated and emotional dispute, inflamed by the fact that it is hardly virgin land.
Going back decades, 64 homes have been built in the Monks’ lawsuit area, and nearly all of the undeveloped lots are next door to or across the street from a house.
“You have a piece of property and across the street are homes, and everybody is fine,” said Stephen Case, one of the plaintiffs in the Monks’ lawsuit. “There’s no problem with their homes. Down the street is a guy who knocked his home down, and a new home is going up. How would you feel?”
Construction opponents argue that someone could be hurt in a slide or houses damaged and that construction equipment moving up and down the two fragile roads that provide access to Portuguese Bend could trigger a landslide.
“A lot of us are frightened and upset over this. We’re living with a bomb over our heads,” Marianne Hunter said.
Mayor Doug Stern said living in the area is like being on the side of Mt. St. Helens -- before the volcano erupted.
In overturning the moratorium, the judge downplayed the chance of a landslide in that portion of Portuguese Bend and said the construction ban cannot be based on fear of injury or damage to property “in the distant future -- damage that could be repaired.”
But landslides have done profound damage to Portuguese Bend over the years. Construction of Crenshaw Boulevard through the area in 1956 trigged a landslide that destroyed more than 100 homes, and about 100 more have been destroyed since then. In 1999, the 18th hole of a golf course fell into the ocean.
Driving through portions of Portuguese Bend, the earth’s movement constantly reveals itself. Doors of houses can be difficult to open and floors are uneven. Long cracks divide residential streets.
In the late 1980s, Palos Verdes Drive South had slid so far seaward, it had to be moved back to where it was supposed to be. Because the road moves six to eight feet a year, it is under almost constant repair
The question has always been: Where is it safe to build?
Stuart Miller, the attorney in Monks’ suit, said experts testified that his clients’ property is above the landslide zone and hasn’t moved for 120,000 years.
The appeals court decision didn’t end the fighting, nor did the state Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case. A trial is set to start Dec. 1 to determine how much the land in the Monks’ case is worth and whether Rancho Palos Verdes owes damages to the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs in the Monks’ case can submit their building plans, but the city has said that the owners of the other 31 lots in the area must first prepare an environmental impact report.
A group opposing the project, however, has sued to require an environmental report for all the lots to study the effects that construction would have on water, runoff, sewers and even whether the area can support increased traffic.
Several of the building foes derided the plaintiffs in the Monks’ case as speculators.
“One of the things I found interesting is some of the people who own those 16 homes, bought those lots after the building restrictions were imposed,” Councilman Steve Wolowicz said. “I think they bought those lots at great discounts at the time anticipating or perhaps speculating they would be able to file this action and prevail and build homes.”
It doesn’t take a real estate mogul to know the value of property in the area just went up. Realtor Michelle Miley was representing a client who was trying to sell an acre for about $1.2 million.
He had owned the property for 25 years, but pulled it off the market in August when it became clear the environmental impact report lawsuit was going to be filed. Another piece of property, a 0.81-acre parcel bought in 2003 for $145,000, is on the market for $860,000.
But the largest development could occur on York’s land. York and his partners, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, paid $24 million for a 312-acre parcel that was once owned by the Vanderlip family, which developed the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
The city recently bought 190 acres from York to preserve as open space for $6.5 million. He would like to build 70 homes on a large chunk of his remaining land and 29 homes on 1-acre lots on another portion. He guesses that the homes would sell for $2 million and up.
John Monks won’t see his dream house, but his family still plans on building.
“It’s ultimately never been about selling off the land and making a profit,” Dennen Monks said. “My parents always wanted to live there. My mom’s still going to live there. That’s been the end-goal since Day 1.”