Laguna Niguel city leaders could make the final decision on a controversial condo project at a special meeting the first week of December, potentially greenlighting a developer to build on the same site where a landslide knocked down homes over 20 years ago. 

The developer says it’s safe to build after studying the soil, and that after nearly 10 years of work they’re ready to make their condos a reality. 

The residents who live above it are worried any construction could destabilize the hill, creating a second landslide that rolls over new homes and leaves their homeowner’s association footing the bill for repairs.  

Council members are expected to vote on the project December 5th, the day before new council members Stephanie Oddo and Ray Genneway, the outgoing mayor’s son, are sworn into office. 

The city council discussed approving the project on Nov. 15, but ultimately pushed it back to give the residents more time to prove the risks they claim are out there. 

One way or another, the future of the project could be decided on December 5th.

The new council is sworn in the next day, which would force the city to potentially restart the discussion from the ground up in violation of state law that limits how long public agencies can debate approving development projects. 

Previous Landslide Sparks Concern

In 1998, the Via Estoril landslide swept through the Crown Cove condominium complex, destroying at least six homes and forcing the demolition of 41 condominiums after concerns the site could shift further. 

After the landslide, the Niguel Summit Homeowners Association sued the developers and got an earthen berm built that would stop a similar landslide from happening again, installing a buttress under the ground to hold the dirt in place and paying to maintain the portion that fell within their property.  

But the land at the bottom of the hill was still owned by Barry Hon, the developer of the Crown Cove project, and in 2013 he began to advertise a new project: The Cove at El Niguel, a plan for 38 new condos at the bottom of the hill where the landslide once occurred. 

Over the next nine years, the number of condos was whittled down to 22, a move the developers say was a sign of good faith with the community to not build up too much on the hill that the community has ignored. 

“I think you’ll find we’ve done an earnest job in coming to a compromise that suits a lot of people,” said Mike Recupero, the agent for the project, at a city council meeting on Nov. 15. “In hindsight, it was probably a mistake.” 

But to squeeze in those condos at the bottom of the hill, the developer wants to cut into the foot of the buttress and set up a retaining wall behind the condos, a move they say will block any potential runoff from the hill heading toward the homes. 

Nearby Residents Push Back

Surrounding residents and the Niguel Summit HOA leaders are worried that by cutting into the foundation it could trigger a new landslide, or climate change impacts could see the hill give way a second time and bury the homes beneath it. 

Under the slogan “One Landslide is Enough,” they’ve been coming out to public meetings for months, with dozens of commenters all asking for the same thing – don’t touch the buttress. 

Jim Kozel, the president of Niguel Summit’s HOA board, said they want to be indemnified from any future collapse, pointing out that if it’s a safe project then the company and city shouldn’t have a problem doing that. 

Both the developer and the city are indemnified under the current proposal should the site collapse again. 

“The liability will fall on each of our homeowners. This is not a fair proposition,” Kozel said at the Nov. 15 council meeting. “We ask that you put their legitimate concerns about safety above the interest of the developer.” 

The only problem is that so far, those residents don’t have any science to back up that the construction of new condos would trigger another landslide. 

American Geotechnical, who used to work for the Niguel Summit HOA studying the site until 2014 before they went to work for Hon, conducted a study that found there’s no risk to building at the bottom of the hill with the proper precautions in place. 

To read a copy of that report, click here

That report was also vetted by city contractors, who gave it the greenlight. 

But many residents say Hon was able to produce reports saying the site was safe before the 1998 condos were built, and those turned out to be wrong. 

“There’s a lot of allegation, a lot of suspicion, but there’s no third party review,” said Greg Powers, an attorney representing the developer. “This is a safe project. That’s the evidence in the record, that’s what’s before you tonight. That goes well beyond allegation.” 

Homeowners Association Appeals the Project

So far, the city has been siding with the developer on moving the project forward. 

In September, the planning commission unanimously approved the project in a 4-0 vote, with Chair Brian Fisk absent.

That decision was appealed by the HOA, forcing the city council to weigh in on the controversial development in a meeting scheduled shortly after the election where they got to hear from residents and the developer. 

[Read: New Condos in Laguna Niguel Near 1998 Landslide Triggers Hard Debate Over the Hills]

At the end of the four hour Nov. 15 meeting, most of the council said that without strong evidence from the residents that the hill could collapse, they were leaning toward approving the developer’s plan. 

“That history, while important to the participants, plays only a background role in this hearing,” said Councilwoman Kelly Jennings. “I find the positions and comments in the staff report resolve those issues.” 

“We’ve been provided with solid evidence from the applicant…that shows what they want to do is safe,” said Councilwoman Sandy Rains. “Fear can cause us to do a lot of things we wouldn’t do if we weren’t so fearful. But fear can be satisfied when we have facts.” 

But the council ultimately voted to delay a final vote for a few weeks, giving residents time to prove their accusations with a review of the slopes on their side of the property line. 

In an interview with Voice of OC, Kozel, president of the Niguel Summit Homeowners Association, said they’re processing a report to show the development site isn’t safe.

“To say the slope is stable, it seems like you’d have to read all the inclinometers,” Kozel said. “We don’t think they’re accurate … people said once before this was safe.” 

The results of those studies likely won’t be publicly available until a few days before the Dec. 5 meeting, with city staff and consultants sharing some concerns that even they wouldn’t have time to properly vet the documents or introduce new recommendations. 

At the council’s Nov. 15 meeting, City manager Tamara Letourneau said there’s timing issues. 

“I’m very concerned about the timing,” Letourneau told the city council. “We can provide you just what we get.” 

Both sides say they’re anxiously awaiting the Dec. 5 council meeting and hope they make the right decision. 

In a statement to Voice of OC, Marice DePasquale, who serves as the project’s community liaison, praised the council’s measured look at the issue. 

“We appreciate the city council’s careful consideration of the project which has been analyzed by the City’s professional staff … and look forward to the hearing on December 5.” 

Kozel said he appreciated the council giving them more time to gather information. 

“If it does collapse what happens?” Kozel said. “This is one of the biggest things the city council has had to vote on in awhile, and hopefully they’re going to make the right decision.” 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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