Laguna Niguel City Councilmembers narrowly approved construction of nearly two dozen condos on the site of a former landslide on Monday, with both the dais and residents split on the potential safety issues of the project. 

The council’s discussion started last month after nearly a decade of planning from the developer, who wants to build 22 condos at the foot of the 1998 Via Estoril landslide that led to the demolition of 41 homes – a site that’s sat vacant since then. 

At the November meeting, the homeowners association that sits above the site asked for more time to show the council data that the project isn’t safe, a request the council approved. 

[Read: Laguna Niguel City Council to Consider Development on Former Landslide Site]

Jim Kozel, president of the Niguel Summit Homeowners Association, said they are concerned that if there’s another landslide they could be held liable by the homeowners at the bottom of the hill, since the association is responsible for maintaining most of the earthen berm set up 

“In the end developers take whatever money they make on projects and leave,” Kozel said at the Monday council meeting. “The residents who live near the site will live with it for generations.”

The homeowners association hired David Lee of Lee & Associates, a geotechnical firm, to review their portion of the hill and see if there were any potential problems. 

Lee brought up concerns that the hillside suffered from “significant creep,” and raised concerns that in the next decade the future homeowners could see it impact their back patios as the ground shifts by a quarter of an inch per year. 

Both the developer and the city’s geotechnical consultants say the information presented by Lee doesn’t change anything, and that the project is safe for residents to move in, pointing out that information about a quarter of an inch shift comes from a single inclinometer on the hill, a special device that measures how the ground moves. 

“There will be creep in the hillside, we’ve always said that,” said Gregory Axten, the developer’s consultant. “It’d take 1,200 years before that slope reaches those buildings … it’s basically a non issue.”

Mike Recupero, the Project Manager representing Barry Hon’s development team, said the association has repeatedly ignored their attempts to work with them and that their argument lacks evidence. 

“It’s important you recognize how difficult it is for me … to take the process seriously when this is happening again and again,” Recupero said at the meeting, and pointed out how the slope sliding could not be used to deny a project. “This is reverse CEQA. That is not grounds for denying a project.”  

But many residents pointed out the developer claimed it was safe for the other homes that got knocked over under the weight of previous landslides, with Patrick Munoz, an attorney from Rutan & Tucker representing the homeowners association, asking for them to continue reviewing the data.

“It’s a site where you were previously told it was safe, and it was wrong,” Munoz said. “Until they convince you in a manner that you can look your neighbors in the eye at the grocery store and feel it’s safe, then you have the right to determine it’s not safe.” 

Ultimately, the council voted 3-2 to approve the project, with Councilmen Fred Minagar and Rischi Paul Sharma voting against it. 

Sharma said he had concerns that future rain runoff from higher up the hill could end up weakening the bottom of the hill. 

“It may not be a result of your bad actions or inattention, it could just be ‘Hey we had a big rain season,’” Sharma said. “I want to make sure it’s safe.” 

Minagar said the “issue of sliding,” was the primary concern for him, and said he “didn’t have any other concerns about the project.” 

Mayor Elaine Gennawey, who left office on Dec. 6 and was replaced by her son Raymond Gennawey, supported the shift and said the evidence in front of them fell with the developer. 

“What we see there is really no proof or evidence from the geotechnical experts that the proposed development cannot be built in accordance with the city’s code requirements, or that the project would have a negative impact,” Gennawey said. “The required factor of safety … is maintained.” 

Councilwoman Sandy Rains, who took nearly 30 seconds of silence in the room to vote when her name was called, thanked residents for coming out but said she had to side with the developer. 

“We do work for you, and sometimes we’re faced with making very challenging decisions that may or may not be what a resident is happy with,” Rains said minutes before voting. “The new information shows there’s some difference of opinion, but overall the majority of professionals we have to count on to make decisions have concurred.” 

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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