By Stacie N. Galang, Andrea Swayne and Jonathan Volzke
Complete fear and shock filled Kelly and John Grush.
A neighbor had knocked on their door at 243 Via Ballena in the Shorecliffs community January 6 to tell them he had heard popping and snapping. They should go out and check the hill behind their home, Kelly Grush recalled her neighbor telling her.
“I think you have a moment where you’re in disbelief,” she said. “You just can’t believe.”
The Grushes were one of four families forced to leave their Shorecliffs homes after the land behind them separated from the hill and slid 25 to 50 feet into the canyon below.
Fear and shock gave way to panic. The couple knew immediately their home would be red-tagged and they would be forced to leave.
“Our entire hillside sheered off at the edge of the patio,” she said. “Everything beyond the patio was gone.”
So Kelly and John and their children-daughter Makenzie, 14 and son Sullivan, 10-unexpectedly had to pack up a house they had lived in for more than two years.
“There’s a point where you realize you might have to walk away and leave everything,” she said before breaking into tears.
The Grushes have been able to gather their belongings in the days since the landslide. A week later they are living with a family, and they’re grateful to be able to get everything out safe and sound.
“It’s just a big question mark right now,” she said from her cell as she washed clothes at the laundry mat. “We’re so tired and so exhausted.”
City Engineer Bill Cameron received the call from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department January 7 morning and went to homes to investigate. He said he’s been to the homes every day since to check their conditions.
“There hasn’t been much change since then fortunately,” he said Tuesday.
Geologists at the site have yet to determine the precise cause for the landslide.
For nearby homeowners, worry and frustration looms.
“My dream home is dead,” said Joseph Arriola, who moved into his Via Ballena home three years ago and planned to live out his retirement there. “I moved here because it was supposed to be the last phase of my life. It’s been very stressful, very surreal.”
He and other homeowners met Saturday to discuss their concerns and, more importantly, their options.
Arriola said when he purchased the house he consulted with engineers and geologists who advised him to remove plantings that used water. He has spent $80,000 in renovations that included removal of anything requiring water and replaced it with decorative stones.
“I walk around it every day checking,” said Arriola, who lives next to a red-tagged home. “I haven’t noticed any damage or breaks.”
Frank Kling moved into his Via Ballena home in August. He lives just a few doors down from the evacuated homes.
With the landslide, he’s concerned about drainage in the area and its impact on his home. He and neighbors believe the drainage hasn’t been maintained but they’re frustrated by what they deem is a lack of answers and responsiveness from the city.
“Let’s understand how much more flow is getting in there, how much is getting into the hills,” he said. “Everybody is acting like it’s our problem.”
His property line lies just a few feet beyond his patio, which looks out onto the Pacific. If he does try to shore up the back of his sloping lot, he will encroach upon the adjacent property.
“We don’t know who owns the property, who maintains it,” he said.
Cameron said the property beyond the Via Ballena homes belongs to the Shorecliffs Golf Course. Both are private property, he noted.
“It’s a very difficult situation for those folks,” the City Engineer said. “The slope failures are on private property.”
The city’s practice is if the slope failure is on private property, it’s the owner’s responsibility to deal with it.
His concern has been the safety and welfare of the residents.
“That’s mainly where I’ve been concentrating my effort at this point,” Cameron said.
Cameron said since he learned about the landslide Friday five to 10 city employees and two outside geologist have been on site investigating.
“So we have expended significant effort out there,” he said.
Typically, if a city street or right of way is involved, city workers will perform a more comprehensive investigation, but in this case the landslides occurred on private property.
When one portion of the hill slid away it sheered off part of an 18-inch storm drain. City workers investigated the pipe with a robotic machine equipped with a video camera.
“We checked what remained there, and it’s in good condition,” Cameron said of the drain.
He can’t be sure when residents will be able to return, but it’s likely they will have to hire their own set of experts to determine what needs to be done to shore up the property to the point that it’s safe to return.
The City Engineer said that if residents want to meet, the city would welcome them.
“We’re always willing to meet with property owners and resident on problems that may occur whether it’s a slope failure or anything else,” Cameron said.
The most-recent landslide returned Paula and Steve Cunningham to the nightmare they went through in July 2006 when a landslide took out the back of their Via Ballena home.
The Cunninghams and three other neighbors were evacuated.
Though she and her husband rent a home in San Juan Capistrano, Paula Cunningham had actually been at her Via Ballena home the morning of the most recent landslide to meet with an engineer. She saw fire trucks come up the street and later learned by text what had happened.
“It was a really, really strange, a weird feeling and that I had just been there,” she said.
She believes part of the responsibility lies with the city, and she and the other homeowners filed a lawsuit in 2008.
“It’s really sad,” Paula Cunningham said.” The city hasn’t done anything to help anybody. It’s frustrating actually.”
The homeowners believe the city is to blame, in part, for its role in the creation, maintenance and upkeep of the roads and lines for sewer and drainage near their homes, according to the 2006 lawsuit.
San Clemente’s inaction caused a “massive deep-seated landslide” and damaged their property and their neighbors, the court documents said. Not only has the landslide undermined the building, it has also devalued them.
The property owners go on to claim that the forced evacuation of their homes amounted to a violation of their constitutional rights for illegal seizure and lack of due process.
The lawsuit also says as a result of the landslide and its effects, the homeowners have suffered emotional distress for which they seek compensation.
The suit also names four engineering firms and the two developers of the nearby Marblehead project. The engineering firms are, in essence, being blamed for their failure to detect the problems that caused the landslides, according to the lawsuit. The Marblehead developers’ improper grading of their land and the use of heavy equipment contributed to the landslides, the homeowners claim in the lawsuit.
More than four years later, the earlier homeowners still contend with issues related to their house.
“I still feel unsettled,” Paula Cunningham said.
Their attorney, Serge Tomassian, has already met with some of the latest landslide victims. Though some point out that the December rains played a role in last week’s landslide, the 2006 accident happened in July.
“There were no heavy rains,” he said. “We obviously have an ongoing problem on Via Ballena that hasn’t been addressed. We believe the city lines exacerbated an already fragile, vulnerable situation up there.”
Tomassian called on city leaders to address the problem as a matter of policy. He said they should work in partnership with homeowners rather than as adversaries.
“Do they protect their homeowners or not?” he asked. “I think it’s simple.”
He pointed to the response by officials in Laguna Beach as a model.
“I don’t understand the city when they take an approach that it’s not our problem; it’s not our responsibility; it’s private property,” he said.
The most recent homeowners evacuated by the landslide continue to cope as best they can. Kelly Grush said she was overwhelmed by the support of neighbors, friends and family who responded immediately without any hesitation. She was deeply grateful.
“I was so amazed at the outpouring of support and help,” she said. “That neighborhood is so incredible. Within 10 minutes we were packing. It’s been nonstop. No questions asked just, ‘What can I do?'”
Given all the recent trauma in their lives, Kelly Grush stayed focused on the positive.
“It just makes you realize that we must have an impact on people, too, to come and help us like that,” she said. “We are healthy and happy. We have a place to stay, and we are loved.”
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