Opposition continues against eminent domain action for tunnel

Property owners who are reluctant to allow access to a South Coast Water District tunnel beneath their bluff top property are also opposed to the district's plan to acquire the area below their properties through court action.

As of June 28, 10 South Laguna property owners had not agreed to sell easements the district needs for the tunnel stabilization project. After spending 18 months trying to buy the easements, the district announced it will go to court to acquire the land by eminent domain, the power to take private property for public use after just compensation.

Dennis Gertmenian, spokesman for Foxdale Properties, one of the 10 holdouts, wrote in a letter that the use of its property for the tunnel project would create dangerous conditions and ongoing hazards to the district personnel, the public and minors.

"We cannot and are not being duly compensated, indemnified or insured," Gertmenian wrote. "Nor has the sewer district met its obligation to clearly define the scope of its projects as it affects our property, which makes it impossible to measure loss."

District officials view the stabilization of the deteriorating tunnel, dug in 1954 to house a sewer pipeline along the coast, and pipeline replacement as a necessity to reduce the risk of a catastrophic sewer spill and injuries to workers. The district has had about 20 community meetings regarding the tunnel project over the past year and a half, spokeswoman Linda Homscheid said.

Gertmenian maintained that the district could accomplish its goal without enlarging the tunnel beneath the Foxdale property, enlarging access to Adit 23 — a horizontal entrance to the tunnel — or creating a new pathway across the property to the adit.

"We are not opposed to enlarging the tunnel under our house, but the adit should be removed," said Gertmenian's wife, Susan, over the phone Thursday.

"My biggest concern is that the cliff the adit sits on is adjacent to a popular path [that] is used by unaccompanied children and teens to get to the beach," she said. "The entrance creates a perfect ledge that attracts them. They see it as a perfect place to sneak a beer and a smoke at night.

"And the cliff becomes a raging torrent of storm drain in the winter, which attracts the children who want to see the back of it, like they do on the jungle ride at Disneyland," Susan continued. "Someone is going to die.

"The sewer district has been put on notice of the hazard, but has done nothing about it," she added. "There are enough adits that the district doesn't need this one."

Dennis Gertmenian stated in his letter that eminent domain should be denied unless the district insures them against injuries during tunnel construction and subsequent operation and indemnifies them for accidents to the public related to the adit, the tunnel and the pathway to it.

Telephone calls to other property owners were not returned by deadline.

"Those people are not very neighborly," said John Keith, the newest member of the South Laguna Advisory Committee.

The committee represents the residents of the area of Laguna Beach served by the water district — roughly from Nyes Place south to the city limits.

"We are the nonvoting liaison with the district board, and we are 100% behind the tunnel project," Keith said.

He said the use of eminent domain by the district to acquire the easements is justified by the benefits the tunnel stabilization brings to the individual property owners and to the community at large.

"It will not only strengthen the properties by meeting earthquake standards, it will protect our ocean from spills," Keith said. "The tunnel stabilization is absolutely essential."

coastlinepilot@latimes.com

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