COUNTY OF SAN MATEO

Inter-Departmental Correspondence

County Counsel

 
 

DATE:

November 6, 2006

BOARD MEETING DATE:

November 14, 2006

 

10:00 a.m.

SPECIAL NOTICE/HEARING:

None

VOTE REQUIRED:

Majority

 

TO:

Honorable Board of Supervisors

   

FROM:

Thomas F. Casey III, County Counsel, and

 

Lisa Grote, Community Development Director

   

SUBJECT:

Hearing and Action on Proposed Abatement of Public Nuisance at 606 Larchmont, unincorporated Colma (APN 006-312-340)

 

RECOMMENDATION:

Adopt a resolution: 1) finding that there is an impending peril to persons and property as a result of the slope failure at 606 Larchmont, so as to constitute a public nuisance; and 2) directing staff to hire a contractor to demolish the house at 606 Larchmont (but leave the foundation intact), and, if necessary, install erosion control and drainage measures to stabilize the hillside in anticipation of the coming winter.

 

VISION ALIGNMENT:

Commitment: Ensure basic health and safety for all.

 

Goal(s): Maintain and enhance the public safety of all residents and visitors.

 

BACKGROUND:

The main sources for the information in this report are statements by Jean F. DeMouthe, Acting County Geologist and William Cameron, County Building Inspection Manager, both of whom will be available to answer questions at the hearing. Staff will provide updated information and photographs of the site at the hearing.

 

The lots at 604 and 606 Larchmont were developed concurrently, under two separate building permits, following the County’s prescribed permitting process. The applicant obtained the services of a licensed engineer, who provided the County with data and recommendations, on which the design and construction of those two houses were based. The steepness of the hillside, the loose condition of the surficial materials, and the presence of shallow groundwater in the area prompted County staff to require special drainage measures, including the construction of a storm drain down to the street below.

 

At the time of the permitting and subsequent construction, the County had no reason to doubt that the applicant’s consultant was following normal standards of practice in his investigation and observations. After the construction, however, this consultant lost his license, was sued for fraud (over projects outside San Mateo County), and has since left the country. It has been found since then that his work on this and other projects was substandard, and that work he claimed to have accomplished was never done.

 

On April 3, 2006 at 9:10 p.m. Building Inspector, Gary Fitzer was contacted by County Dispatch who indicated there was a possible slope failure occurring at 606 Larchmont Drive in the Broadmoor area. After phone conversations with Lisa Grote, Director of Community Development, Brian Molver of OES and Geoffrey Balton, Colma Fire District Fire Chief, he responded to the call and arrived at the scene at approximately 11:00 p.m. The slope failure occurred beneath and around the house at 606 Larchmont. This landslide developed fairly quickly, with a steep headscarp (top) between the house and the sidewalk at the top of the hill. The entire slope below the house moved, and a toe bulge developed on the property at the bottom of the hill, on MacArthur Drive. The house moved almost straight down, but is still intact. Due to the slight rotational movement of the landslide, any further movement of the house will probably cause it to tip back toward Larchmont.

 

A cursory inspection of the site revealed fissures between the street and the structure at 606 Larchmont Drive. The structure also showed signs of distress; i.e. racking of the rear deck, shear cracks in the garage, and shear cracks in the foundation grade beams. Because of the extent of damage visible during this cursory inspection, the structure was posted with an “Unsafe to Enter” Red Tag.

 

Because of darkness, it was not possible to perform a complete site evaluation. However, as a precautionary measure, the three houses directly below 604, 606, and 608 Larchmont, which are on MacArthur Drive, were ask to voluntarily evacuate their homes until a more complete site evaluation could occur and it could be determined that the landslide was no longer moving.

 

The slope failure continued to move for several weeks, resulting in the structure eventually moving down slope approximately 10 feet horizontally and 8 feet vertically. By April 11, 2006 the slope failure was so unstable and un-predictable that 663, 667, and 671 Mac Arthur Drive were officially evacuated and the structures posted with yellow tags that allowed only “limited entry during daylight hours” to obtain personal items. Two of the three households were provided with temporary housing through the Human Services Agency. The third property owner chose to stay with relatives.

 

Also affected by the slope failure were the two properties on each side of 606 Larchmont. 604 Larchmont was a home that was under construction by the same developer. The slope failure encroached onto that parcel, but not to the extent that damage occurred to the structure. 608 Larchmont is an occupied duplex home. The westerly side scarp of the slope failure encroached onto this property up to the foundation and also severely damaged the lower deck in the rear yard. However, the structure did not show signs of distress and remains occupied to this day. Staff continues to monitor this structure and will make regular site visits when the winter rains begin. If further failure occurs, it may be necessary to yellow tag this structure also.

 

After the rains of April stopped and the slope and structure stopped moving a site visit was conducted by County Geologist, Jean DeMouthe and Building Inspection Manager, William Cameron, on May 4, 2006. At that time it was determined that the immediate danger to 663 and 671 Mac Arthur no longer existed and that the landslide did not encroach onto those properties, so that these structures could once again be occupied. The yellow tags on those two structures were officially removed on May 8, 2006.

 

The property at 667 Mac Arthur, which is located directly below 606 Larchmont, remains yellow tagged. The toe of the slope failure encroaches onto this property and poses a danger to any persons who occupy the structure. We have been informed by Stan Brody, an owner of 606 Larchmont, that his offer to purchase 667 Mac Arthur from the Zamora family has been accepted, and escrow is expected to close soon.

 

At this time, at the end of the dry season, the landslide has not moved for about six months. It is anticipated, however, that once it begins to rain, water will again saturate the loose soils on this hill and movement will continue.

 

DISCUSSION:

The Building and Planning Division has communicated with the property owners numerous times over the past six months, informing them of the urgent need to take action to resolve the problems at 606 Larchmont. At the time of the slope failure, the property was owned by William Watts. Staff sent letters to Mr. Watts on April 26 and May 25 demanding immediate action. Mr. Watts claimed to have no financial involvement, and while he did come in for a meeting with County staff on May 31, he was unwilling to take action beyond contacting Stan Brody and Mike Wallace to ask them to get involved. In late July, new owners, including Stan Brody, purchased the property in a foreclosure sale. Staff sent letters to the new owners on June 29, which resulted in them coming in for a meeting on July 18; and again on August 1, resulting in a meeting on August 10. At the meetings in July and August with County staff, Mr. Brody and his team described a plan to move the house down the hill and improve the foundation. They also presented this idea to a meeting of the Broadmoor area property owners’ association in August. The initial step was to engage the services of an expert to develop a geotechnical report. They estimated that the geotechnical report could be completed and given to the County by late August or early September. The owners later reported delays due to problems getting access to the neighboring property (which they are now in the process of purchasing).

 

Finally, on October 12, 2006, Lisa Grote sent Mr. Brody a letter informing him that if the nuisance had not been abated by removal of the house from its current location by October 24, the matter would be presented to the Board of Supervisors for confirmation of the decision that the situation constituted a public nuisance, and that the County would perform the abatement itself and the property owner would be liable for the costs.

 

On October 24, 2006, the property owner submitted a Preliminary Geotechnical Report concerning 604-606 Larchmont that was prepared by Earth Investigations Consultants: Engineering Geologist Joel Baldwin II, and Civil Engineer David W. Buckley.

 

The report presents a brief description of how the investigation was performed, including photogeologic interpretation, field reconnaissance, and drilling and sampling of borings. The report refers to an erosion control plan prepared by LTI, dated 10-20-06, and concurs with the drainage measures shown on that plan and concludes that proper implementation and maintenance will probably limit landslide movement to minor creep for this winter. They judge the risk of building collapse or catastrophic movement to be low.

 

Specific recommendations to stabilize the slide have not been provided. Options to ultimately stabilize the slide were indicated. These options included construction of a buttress fill, or stitch pier retaining wall.

 

The preliminary report includes a limited amount of data. It is not of sufficient detail to choose an alternative or prepare design drawings. The report indicates that further information will be presented in a final report that is expected to be submitted on November 1, 2006.

 

County staff strongly recommends that the owner of these properties “winterize” the slope as described in the preliminary report from Earth Investigations Consultants. This should be done regardless of whether the house at 606 Larchmont is demolished or not. Winterization is necessary because gravity and the lubricating effects of rain and groundwater are the driving forces affecting this hillside. Water comes onto these properties from two sources. Rain soaks into the hillside soils and any unpaved areas around the houses. Roof drainage from both houses is collected in a closed pipe system that is directed along an easement to MacArthur Drive below. During very heavy rain, surface water sometimes flows onto the properties from the cul-de-sac, despite the presence of a normal curb and gutter. The second source of water is in the ground, flowing from the uplands to the south (Daly City proper).

 

In addition to the recommendations made in the report from Earth Investigations Consultants, County staff also suggests the following measures:

 

    place sand bags along the curb on Larchmont adjacent to the properties at 604 and 606;

    curve the ends of the proposed debris fence at the bottom of the hill up, particularly on the 604 property, in order to protect the occupied sites below; and

    present a contingency plan in case the existing storm drain on the slope is found to be unusable.

 

It is staff’s conclusion that, given the steepness of the slope, the evidence of substantial slope movement during the 2005-2006 winter rains, the fact that no repairs have yet to be made to the slide area, and the uncertainty that the proposed winterization plan will be effective in arresting further slope movement, there is a substantial though unquantifiable risk of future slope movement that could impact properties and persons located below the slide area. Furthermore, if the slide reactivates as a result of the winter rains, there is a substantial likelihood that there will be additional failure of the structure at 606 Larchmont.

 

LEGAL AUTHORITY:

County Ordinance Code Chapter 1.12 authorizes the County to take action to abate a nuisance on private property where the owner has been given notice of the need to abate the nuisance and has failed to take action to do so. (Govt. Code 25845 allows the County to adopt such an ordinance.) The ordinance allows the County to recover the cost of the abatement from the owner, and allows the County to place a lien on the property if necessary. The property owner, Stan Brody, was informed in several letters over the past six months of the urgent need to take action to resolve the problems at 606 Larchmont. On October 12, 2006, Lisa Grote sent Mr. Brody a letter informing him that if the nuisance had not been abated by October 24, the matter would be presented to the Board of Supervisors on November 14 for confirmation of the decision that the situation constituted a public nuisance, and that the County would perform the abatement itself and the property owner would be liable for the costs. The ordinance allows the owner to request a hearing before the Board to appeal the decision of the Planning Director. While Mr. Brody did not formally appeal the matter, he was informed that we intended to hold a hearing before the Board in any event, and that he would have the opportunity to speak at the hearing.

 

PROPOSED FINDINGS AND ACTION:

Immediate action is necessary to prevent further damage from the slope failure at 606 Larchmont. The entire slope beneath the house moved during last winter’s rains, and the house itself moved approximately 10 feet horizontally and 8 feet vertically. As a result, three homes on the street below had to be evacuated. In the expert opinion of County staff, namely Acting County Geologist, Jean F. DeMouthe, it is anticipated that once it begins to rain, water will again saturate the loose soils on the hill at 606 Larchmont, and movement will continue. By the time of the hearing of this matter, the “rainy season” will have begun. Due to the strong possibility of further movement of the hillside and/or the house once it begins to rain, immediate action must be taken in order to prevent personal injury and property damage.

 

Staff proposes that the County hire contractors to demolish the house (but leave the foundation intact), and install erosion control and drainage measures to stabilize the hillside in anticipation of the coming winter (to the extent that the “winterization” work has not been done already by the property owner as of the date of the Board hearing). Staff is of the opinion that the foundation should be left in place because it contributes to the stability of the hillside. The property owner’s expert is of the opinion that with proper winterization, the risk of the house collapsing is low. However, staff is unable to predict with certainty what will happen. The concern is that if the winterization plan does not work, there could be further slope failure, and the house could collapse, endangering neighboring persons and property.

 

The property owner would still need to take more permanent measures to stabilize the hillside, along the lines of those proposed in the recent geotechnical report.

 

Staff has consulted with a contractor that is available to do the demolition work, with an estimated cost of about $40,000. The contractor is FERMA, a demolition company that has done work for the County in the past, including in La Honda. Staff estimates that it would take about one week to do some required testing and obtain an air quality permit, and then the demolition work could be done in 1-2 days. The winterization is estimated to cost an additional $10,000.

 

As reflected in the proposed Resolution that accompanies this report, staff recommends that the Board adopt a resolution: 1) finding that there is an impending peril to persons and property as a result of the slope failure at 606 Larchmont, so as to constitute a public nuisance; and 2) directing staff to hire a contractor to demolish the house at 606 Larchmont (but leave the foundation intact), and, if necessary, install erosion control and drainage measures to stabilize the hillside in anticipation of the coming winter.

 

FISCAL IMPACT:

The nuisance abatement ordinance provides for the County to recover the cost of abatement from the property owners. The fiscal impact to the County would be approximately $50,000 if the County were unable to obtain reimbursement from the property owners.