Laguna Niguel residents are asking tough questions about plans for 22 new condos at the base of the hill where a previous landslide in 1998 took out nearly a dozen homes, despite developer and city assurances that geotechnical studies point to stable slopes.
On Tuesday night, local planning commissioners are set to publicly review plans for the new condo development near the site of the previous landslide.
In 1998, the Niguel Summit neighborhood was rocked by the Via Estoril Landslide, which destroyed nine homes and damaged parts of the Crown Cove condominium neighborhood, which was ultimately demolished before more damage could occur.
The developer, Barry Hon of Laguna Niguel Properties Inc., is the same one who built the development that collapsed over twenty years ago, but this time officials say they’ve found a way to make it safe.
Under the new plans, the developer is looking to set up a 15 foot retaining wall they say will hold up any potential landslides along with the improvements that have already been built there, leaving around half of their site as open space.
“The city of Laguna Niguel is on the edge of a generational shift. You look at the age of the city, we’ve got a project of 22 townhomes we think responds to that,” said Marice DePasquale, the project’s spokesperson.
Residents of the Niguel Summit and Charter Terrace homeowners associations, who have homes that ring the site of the collapse, are publicly pushing back against the developer and calling on planning commissioners to leave the site empty.
Organizing under the slogan “One Landslide is Enough,” residents are calling on their neighbors to tell the city this isn’t a project they want and to keep the land cleared out.
“One of our biggest concerns is the credibility of the geotechnical reports,” said Cheryl Friedling, a Charter Terrace resident. “It’s not uncommon to shop around for a report that’s favorable.”
According to DePasquale, the developer has studied 20 years worth of data from the site and their contractors have confirmed it’s good to go.
“The landslide area has been stabilized and is suitable to accommodate the plan we’re proposing,” DePasquale said. “We have two decades of onsite data with monitoring in the ground, and the stability improvements appear to be functioning properly.”
But residents point to 1998 LA Times news coverage of the previous landslide indicating longstanding concerns about the stability of the nearby slopes, and even the ultimate accuracy of geotechnical studies at the time.
The two homeowner associations directly adjacent to the site have hired Rutan and Tucker, one of the largest law firms in Orange County that provides city attorneys for multiple cities in the county, to review the environmental impact report.
They had some concerns.
In a letter to city staff, Patrick Muñoz, a partner at the firm and the city attorney of Dana Point, said the report was “legally deficient and factually flawed in many aspects, leading to a number of conclusions that are not supported by substantial evidence.”
“The (report) glosses over past geotechnical reports highlighting this issue, and the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Association (“FEMA”) determined that the Project Site should remain open space in perpetuity,” Muñoz wrote.
At one point, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was set to compensate homeowners and declare the land as open space after the landslide, but a private settlement from the developer prompted the agency to cancel those plans.
The city appealed the decision twice, and was denied the funding both times.
“There was no geotechnical reason why FEMA wanted that land to be open space,” DePasquale said. “It has nothing to do with any geotechnical issues, it’s a standard practice by FEMA when they pay out on stuff like that…the open space was merely to prevent future profit after the government has compensated you for it.”
The city approved the environmental impact report with no changes after they had another consultant review it.
While the third party consultant is ultimately paid with fees from the developer, the developer doesn’t have any say in their review according to John Morgan, the city’s Development Services Manager.
In an interview with Voice of OC, Morgan said that city staff aren’t experts on geotechnical grading and they have to trust the experts.
“Those reports were peer reviewed by the city’s third party expert, and they’ve essentially drawn the same conclusion,” Morgan said. “We have to make evidence based recommendations…we have to rely on the experts.”
If approved by the planning commission, the only way it would come in front of the city council is if one side appeals the decision.
The planning commission meeting starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, and the only way to view it is in person.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.