LA CONCHITA SLIDE TRIAL TO BEGIN : RESIDENTS BLAME RANCH ATOP HILLSIDE FOR LOSS OF HOMES, DAMAGES.
La Conchita homeowners frustrated by the landslide threat still looming over their seaside community hope a civil trial starting this week will bring relief.
Nearly two years after a wall of earth destroyed nine homes, a lawsuit filed by more than 100 property owners against the La Conchita Ranch Co. is ready for trial in Ventura Superior Court.
Judge Barbara Lane will preside over two jury trials: The first will determine whether the ranch is liable for property damage, relocation costs, emotional distress and lost use of property, and whether it must remove the landslide and stabilize the hillside. The second trial will determine damages, if the ranch is found liable.
``Mainly, we hope the hill will be stabilized somehow,'' said Jean Kosztics, who lives with her husband on Vista Del Rincon at the hillside's base. ``We want to stay here and we want the hill saved - nothing else.''
While some homeowners who joined in the lawsuit have remained in La Conchita, others have moved away. The trial in Lane's third-floor courtroom will bring together many who have stayed in contact through a message machine on a phone line at one of the homes.
``I don't go down there any more,'' said Dan Alvis, one of nine homeowners who lost property under dirt that let loose in March 1995. ``I don't have a home. I got reduced to zero.''
Most of the homeowners' anger is directed at the ranch company. Residents contend that the company endangered the community by weakening the hillside with the planting and irrigating of citrus orchards on a site some 300 feet above the 196 homes beginning in 1974.
The lawsuit charges the company was aware of several ancient landslides on the 600-acre ranch and failed to adequately stabilize the hillside.
Residents first were warned by the county in September 1994 that the hillside was moving. Additional warnings that a landslide could occur at any time were issued in January and February 1995, in the midst of an unusually wet winter.
The landslide came a month later, followed by a torrent of mud from a side canyon.
Ventura County officials subsequently notified homeowners that the entire community is a geologic hazard area that should be avoided. County officials also reassessed properties and notified homeowners that their residences currently didn't have any value.
Ranch officials have said irrigation has not played a significant role in the hillside's stability.
The company's attorney, Frank Sabaitis, has said the citrus trees use up the irrigated water. He said natural springs deliver most of the water found in the hillside.
The ranch company filed a separate lawsuit charging that the county was liable because it approved construction of homes in the ancient landslide area.
The company, however, dropped the lawsuit in October after county attorneys provided evidence that the county was not responsible for either the landslide or the resulting damage. County Counsel James McBride has said the hillside is private property and that the county's liability only extends to regulating construction and maintenance of public roads and permitting homes on the lots, which were created when La Conchita was subdivided more than 70 years ago.
Although no more landslides have occurred, county public works officials have monitored movement on the hillside by tracking survey points and inclinometers drilled into the slope.
``It's doing real good,'' said Kosztics. ``Maybe somebody is looking out for us.''