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California landslide: Rolling Hills Estates residents worry about winter rains


Sepideh Razipour and her husband never thought they could afford to be homeowners, but when their Rolling Hills Estates rental went up for sale, they scrambled to make the townhouse their own, pulling together savings and borrowing from extended family.

But before they made their first mortgage payment, a massive landslide upended life on Peartree Lane, pulling eight neighbors’ homes down a nearby canyon and pushing others into different levels of structural purgatory. Razipour’s home survived unscathed, but the land movement damaged crucial sewer lines, which left her unit unlivable.

Now, almost five months later, utility repairs are stalled as officials worry about potential ground shifts, leaving Razipour’s family of four stuck in temporary housing.

Sepideh Razipour owns a home across the street from the landslide that occurred on Peartree Lane in July. Her house wasn’t damaged, but it’s been yellow-tagged and is still unlivable because of sewer damage.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“What are the chances of buying a home and not being able to live in it after a week? It was just a week,” Razipour said. “It’s affecting every aspect of our lives.”

She remains hopeful they can soon return, but concerns about a rainy winter and her street’s long-term stability loom large — even as work to shore up the slope finally begins.

“I’m worried, but hopefully … they’ll do the winterization before the heavy rain starts,” Razipour said. “It’s been really hard.”

The city of Rolling Hills Estates reported that last winter’s excessive rains caused July’s devastating landslide, although the findings were preliminary and at least two independent analyses are ongoing.

But residents worry that heavy rainfall could overwhelm the still unstable ground, threatening even more homes or creating new issues across the landslide-prone Palos Verdes Peninsula.

“A part of our hillside is missing, so who’s to say during the rainy season if there’s more instability,” said David Zee, who also bought his house months before the slide.

Zee’s house is one of four deemed structurally unsafe but not destroyed, although it now sits on the precipice of the failed slope. Eight other homes collapsed with the hillside, and five more — including Razipour’s — remain yellow-tagged and vacant because of sewer damage.

“Everybody’s worried that more of the hill can come down,” said Steve Blum, an attorney who specializes in landslide litigation and is representing some of the residents on Peartree Lane. “There could definitely be expansion of the slide to affect other properties.”

Meteorologists say the chances are high for an El Niño weather pattern this winter, which could bring increased rainfall across much of the Southwest. That raises the likelihood of land movement disasters, including slides, experts warn.

The threat is especially evident on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where two other homes were recently red-tagged — both in Rancho Palos Verdes’ Seaview neighborhood — after residents found cracks and other structural damage. The homes are not far from Portuguese Bend, where the peninsula’s most dramatic landslide complex covers 240 acres. Officials say its movement has accelerated in recent months.

An aerial view shows damaged homes on Peartree Lane in Rolling Hills Estates.

An aerial view shows damaged homes on Peartree Lane in Rolling Hills Estates.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

El Hachemi Bouali, an assistant professor of geosciences at Nevada State University, said that “the residents of Rolling Hills Estates should be cautious.”

“If the upcoming winter rainfall events mimic last winter’s events, I would not be surprised if there is more movement on these previously failed slopes,” said Bouali, who co-authored a report on the nearby Portuguese Bend landslide complex. “Landslides tend to occur where they have before because the remaining intact slope is now less stable.”

A chain-link fence now runs along one side of Peartree Lane, blocking off the homes that were demolished or ruled unsafe and the slope that city officials say remains unstable since the July 8 collapse. The landslide moved the existing slope about 45 feet down the canyon, according to the city’s report.

The city recently ordered the two homeowners associations in the gated Rolling Hills Park Villas community to implement winterization measures to mitigate stormwater runoff and erosion and halt further damage to the canyon, according to an October notice.

City and county officials applied for disaster reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier this month — a request still under review — but there has been little other public funding allocated for the landslide’s recovery and mitigation. Instead, costs for work on the slope — which is considered private property owned by the HOAs — has fallen on homeowners, with each of the almost 200 households, including those on Peartree Lane, now facing a fee of almost $24,000.

“I assumed, in the beginning, we’re a developed country … everybody’s going to be involved and helping out, the county, the city,” Razipour said. “But I’m not getting any help. … Where do we get that money from?”

A woman stands next to a chain-link fence and sandbags, with damaged homes in the background.

Sepideh Razipour looks out on damaged homes beyond a fenced area in Rolling Hills Estates.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Razipour and her husband are still paying their mortgage and property taxes on a home they cannot occupy, a growing challenge with added costs from temporary housing. She has no idea how they’ll afford the three $8,000 installments to the HOAs beginning in January — their share of the $4.3-million combined work for geotechnical assessments, winterization construction and long-term stabilization efforts.

Rolling Hills Estates spokesperson Alexa Davis said that after the city declared an emergency this summer, the city and county allocated a sum of $125,000 to help residents with temporary housing and small incidentals, such as groceries; however, all but $20,000 of that pot has been spent. The city has not received any other emergency financial assistance, Davis said.

She said the city is working with Supervisor Janice Hahn’s office on a program to offer the HOAs loans for repair work. But like the FEMA funds, that remains a work in progress.

The HOAs’ winterization work includes sealing fissures along the slope, using sandbags and plastic sheeting to minimize runoff and installing a drainage pipe at the bottom of the canyon, according to an HOA presentation reviewed by The Times. The city’s order repeatedly notes that “workers should not be allowed near any portion of the headscarp” near the top of the landslide as the area remains unstable.

“Without these winterization measures, it is anticipated that large amounts of soil and debris will be eroded from the landslide,” the city’s community development director wrote to the homeowners associations. “That erosion will remove support from the landslide and contribute to its further movement,” which could directly threaten areas to the west and north of the landslide — where homes are still standing.

“The failure to timely implement the measures described above and secure the landslide area from further erosion, degradation and damage may result in the city seeking legal authority to perform the work itself,” the order said. The estimated completion is mid-January, with plans for long-term stabilization to begin after.

A representative from both homeowners associations, as well as the HOAs’ management company, did not respond to questions from The Times.

Severely damaged homes

Homes on Peartree Lane continue to slide downhill months after the hillside below gave way.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This is not the first time Rolling Hills Park Villas residents have raised concerns about shifting ground or the potential for problems from excessive water. At least one homeowner found cracks in their house during the neighborhood’s development, and others reported drainage issues, according to records from the 1970s and ’80s.

Additional building records for the community, obtained from the county by The Times, also revealed other landslide issues over the last few decades — at least one of which occurred on Peartree Lane, though in a different location from this summer’s slide. However, geotechnical and geologic experts said the historical records do not necessarily pinpoint issues that could be linked to the recent Peartree Lane landslide.

In 1986, a resident at 21 Peartree Lane — just west of the July slide — commissioned a geotechnical investigation after finding “cracks in the walls, tilted floors, floor cracks and separation of the patio from the townhome,” according to the report at the time.

The investigation found that multiple areas of the townhome had settled about 1 inch and noted significant concerns about the steepness of the slope. The minor land movement was found to have been caused by relatively weak soil and an “oversteepened slope angle,” engineers at the time found.

“The generally weak condition of the soil should have precluded the construction of the steep slope,” the report said. The authors recommended mitigation steps but noted that completely eliminating slope stability issues would probably be too costly.

“It should be recognized that even though the structure condition can be improved, unless the slope is treated as well, a substandard condition will exist at the site,” according to the report, which recommended deeper foundations, better drainage and detaching the patio from the home’s foundation.

“If built today, the slopes would likely be flatter and foundations would likely be somewhat heavier,” the 1986 report found, calling it a “construction defect” that the topsoil was left in place below the fill and that the home was built on such a steep slope.

It wasn’t clear from the historical records what actions were taken at the time. Attempts to contact prior and current homeowners were unsuccessful.

In 1992, one of the HOAs hired a geotechnical firm for a “proposed slope repair” east of Hawthorne Boulevard — down the hill from where multiple homes currently stand — after a “local slope failure.” No home damage was reported, but the land movement had “undermined a paved terrace swale,” the report said. During repairs, engineers found that nearby drainage pipes had been clogged and “caused the water to flow out of the terrace drain onto the slope in a concentrated manner,” causing the slope failure, the report said.

However, work at that site was also characterized as “remedial in nature,” and the 1992 report also noted that “the possibility of additional failures occurring on the site at the same location or at other locations cannot be ruled out.”

Amy Rechenmacher, an engineering practice professor at USC who visited Peartree Lane after the landslide, reviewed the county’s historical records and found the reports “extremely alarming.” She was particularly concerned by data on the slope’s incline from the 1986 Peartree Lane report, which she said should have triggered more stringent building requirements.

“You’re basically flirting with disaster,” she said of the steep slope. She questioned the homes’ construction, given their location near a streambed and known geologic weakness in the area.

“Why weren’t these houses on deep foundations?” she said.

But Blum, the attorney representing Peartree Lane residents, said the historical reports aren’t necessarily a smoking gun for the July slide.

Construction defects “might be factors, but there are other factors too — including, as the city said, the rain, and possibly including some man-made devices,” Blum said. “We’re looking at a lot of different possibilities.”

He wouldn’t elaborate and declined to comment further on what he thought caused the July landslide, citing a likely lawsuit. He said his team has hired its own geotechnical firm to review the incident.

In the Peartree Lane stabilization plan, the HOAs say they plan to improve slope safety with long-term remedies, which include securing 45-foot-deep caissons — boxlike structures often used in foundations — into the slope, as well as building a short concrete wall.

In addition to fixes on Peartree Lane, Rechenmacher said she would like the county or state — or even the nation — to better research landslide-prone areas and inform residents about the risks. She used as an example the national forecasting and warning service for rainfall-induced landslides implemented by Norway in 2013.

“Why hasn’t there been a massive effort in the county of Los Angeles … to look at all landslide-prone areas and warn homeowners?” she said.

The U.S. Geological Survey has recommendations for preparing for landslides, but Nevada State’s Bouali said sometimes there’s little people can do. The professor recommended that those living in areas susceptible to slides take some precautions, such as limiting excess water seeping into the ground, checking for leaking pipes and reducing irrigation.

But for Jooyun Lee and her family — who have been living in hotels and Airbnbs since their townhome on Peartree Lane was yellow-tagged — they’re stuck in limbo. She returns often to check on her property, and has been glad to see there’s always work being done — by geologists, engineers or utility teams. She’s hopeful they can return home soon after repairs are completed.

“Hopefully February or March, but I don’t know and [city officials] don’t know either. So I’m just waiting, my family is waiting,” Lee said. “It’s been challenging emotionally and financially, but I look at the brighter side.”

She and her husband are facing a growing list of expenses from the landslide, including rental costs and the new HOA fees — but she is trying to focus on the fact that, thankfully, no one was hurt.

“We want everything done quickly, but realistically, we just need patience,” she said. “One day at a time.”



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