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Origin of Foothill dip disputed by water retailer in claim against city

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La Cañada Public Works director Pat DeChellis, left, and resident David Haxton stand in the natural canyon south of Lutheran Church in the Foothills, near where the city believes a burst water pipe underneath Foothill Boulevard caused the road to sink. The city and the Foothill Municipal Water District have legal claims against each other on who is at fault for the subsidence.
(Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)

A chicken-and-egg debate of epic proportions is beginning to brew as two La Cañada agencies point fingers over who’s legally responsible for the significant subsidence of a stretch of Foothill Boulevard that occurred following an April 21 water pipe break.

Attorneys representing the city filed an Aug. 20 complaint through the Los Angeles County Superior Court claiming Foothill Municipal Water District demonstrated negligence in repairing a 65-year-old subterranean pressurized water pipe that broke Easter Sunday near Lutheran Church in the Foothills.

The city is seeking damages and immediate repair of the roadway, which has sunk by several inches following the incident.

FMWD, in turn, filed an Aug. 22 claim against the city alleging “insufficient compaction of soils caused District pipe to sag and break, with resulting water loss.”

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That claim exceeds $10,000 and seeks compensation for the water retailer’s investigation of the loss and subsequent repair of the pipe and underlying soil as well as temporary repairs made to the roadway.

A report considered by the La Cañada Flintridge City Council Tuesday indicated the city’s third-party claims administrator, Carl Warren and Co., recommended FMWD’s claim be rejected and the claimant notified, although no reason for denial was given.

Council members unanimously denied the claim and adjourned into closed session to discuss the matter privately.

Representatives on both sides will not comment specifically on the dispute. But local resident David Haxton, a member of Lutheran Church in the Foothills adjacent the Foothill dip, has his own theories about the possible origins of the subsidence.

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In a public comment Tuesday, Haxton urged city officials to act now and litigate later.

“I don’t see why you don’t just fix it and send [FMWD] a bill, and if they don’t pay file a lawsuit,” he said, adding that the rainy season could spell danger at the low-slung road segment. “You should be working on this, not solving the liability first.”

Earlier that day, Haxton convened a small group at the church comprising La Cañada Public Works Director Pat DeChellis, FMWD General Manger Nina Jazmadarian and engineer Ken Herman, along with longtime church member Roger Schulke, who believes the Foothill dip predates the water pipe break.

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A slideshow presentation portrays how natural canyons under what’s now Foothill Boulevard were filled in, including the area surrounding a roadway subsidence that’s the subject of a dispute between the city and Foothill Municpal Water District.
(Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)

Haxton showed an undated photograph demonstrating how yawning canyons, like the one on which his church was built, were filled in with vast loads of dirt to accommodate the building of roads and structures.

He believes the condition of the fill dirt upon which Foothill Boulevard was constructed and a city storm drain running deep underneath the very spot of the April 21 breakage may have contributed to the break in FMWD’s pipe.

“Did the burst pipe cause the subsidence, or did the subsidence cause the burst pipe?” he posed.

The small assembly hiked to the bottom of the canyon behind the church, where the opening of the city storm drain sits half-filled with sediment.

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A church member for more than 60 years, Schulke described the canyon as an erstwhile hillside dumping ground. Two eucalyptus trees growing there recently uprooted. The uneven, cracked parking lot seems to suggest instability — Schulke said a cement truck came years ago when light poles were being installed and sank into the asphalt.

“In my opinion, there’s always been a little bit of a dip there for years and years,” the La Crescenta resident said of the Foothill segment. “My concern is if we do get some rain it’s a danger.”

Not content to rely solely upon anecdotes, Haxton showed the group shots of the road segment as archived by Google Earth dating back to April 2011, when a straight and level Foothill Boulevard median is apparent.

By October 2011 a slight dip is visible, and by 2015 the road appears to have subsided even further.

“My conclusion is it’s not the pipe that caused the initial subsidence,” he said. “The question is, what caused it?”

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La Canada Flintridge Public Works Director Pat DeChellis, left, and Lutheran Church of the Foothills member David Haxton talk Tuesday morning near the area where a large dip in the road has developed, on 1700 block of Foothill Boulevard.
(Raul Roa/Staff Photographer)

DeChellis scuttled one theory of Haxton’s, that a rupture in the city’s storm drain created a void underneath the FMWD pipe that in turn caused it to split. A scoping camera used in May, he said, showed no rupture to the drain.

“That was our first thought, so we wanted to see if there was a void,” DeChellis said. “There are no voids.”

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Haxton is still not convinced the problem began on April 21.

“To me, the fact that the drain is right there doesn’t seem like a coincidence, but I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

While the city and Foothill Municipal work out liability issues, parking on Foothill Boulevard’s south side has been temporarily prohibited, and signs indicating the dip warn drivers of the hazard ahead. Meanwhile, a survey crew measures 73 points on and near Foothill Boulevard each week in both directions to track the sinking, which has slowed since late June.

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