Sunday, June 15, 2008

$5.8 million for Five Families (!?)

The Daily Bulletin informs me that a judge has ordered Pomona to pay five families a total of $5.8 million to compensate them for damages due to a landslide below their houses. I tried to find more details, but found only a single article describing the start of the suit.

I'm sure that there are a whole bunch of details missing here, and I'd welcome clarification or a bit more history. But in the absence of clarification, my rant:

How on earth is it that the owner of a great big empty hillside (empty, because it can't be built upon due to fear of landslides) is responsible for maintaining the hillside so it doesn't slide or endanger the millions of dollars worth of real estate perched above the hillside!? Call me crazy, but I'd assume that the folks on top of the hill would have a strong interest in maintaining the integrity of the hillside, rather than the folks who own the (relatively) worthless hillside land. Especially when the folks on top picked the hillside location due to the great views.

I'm sure that there's lots and lots of history here, and that something funky went on with the original developer, but I'm still kind of flummoxed here. I mean, my experience is that when the city suggests that someone not build due to these sorts of dangers, the developers threaten to sue, and start talking about how they have every right to build on their private property. It doesn't seem fair to sue because you can't build, then sue because you shouldn't have been allowed to build (not to imply that this happened here).

What's next, the folks in Iowa who are flooded out suing the folks upstream for not soaking up more of the rain before it hit the river? Who should I sue when my house gets destroyed by an earthquake? Perhaps those folks out in Hawaii who are obviously pushing the Pacific plate our way!?

Again, I realize that there is probably some more history here that makes this whole lawsuit at least slightly more reasonable, but it still seems kinda sucky for the city to have to pay up for folks who seem to have failed to do their due diligence, and expect the rest of us to pay for it.

29 comments:

Garrett Sawyer said...

I don't get it either. Why are people dumb enough to even live on hills? That's what I want to know. I don't see how the city is responsible, the only way they could be is if the slide slid down from city property. If it was someone’s yard or house falling on someone else’s house or yard then it's the property owners responsibility, not the developers or the city's. Developers can basically get away with putting a house that weighs a ton on a flag pole but the people that are dumb enough to consider purchasing/renting it should know better. lol.

Btw, in the event of damages to homes by earthquakes, us ground dwellers can try suing USGS for not properly warning us. *rolls eyes*

"If I end up with financial liability for this," said Razza, 49, an electrical equipment salesman, "it would basically ruin me, and I would think it would do the same to the other families."

That’s a pretty idiotic thing to be quoted on considering…

Matthew 7:25-27
"And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock (valley floor/ground).”

“Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who (bought a house on a hillside) built his house on the sand.”

"The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell-- and great was its fall."

“And God lol’d.”

It's funny, if I were in their posistion, which I would never be, I most definitly would NOT move to another hillside location, EVER in my life...lol. That is not the case with a few of those owners, just itching to have the same thing possibly happen to them again by moving to Chino Hills. lol.

sherlock said...

Not intending to rant on the newspaper, but the coverage seemed a bit spotty. Hopefully, the city's liability is partially covered by insurance, yet another item which should have been included in the article.

Although the article included a comment from the city attorney, anyone know if the city retained a different attorney for the trial?

Anonymous said...

My first question was: If the city has to pay, where would the money come from? The article was missing alot of information.
As you may know (from previous Dailey Bulletin articles) Pomona doesn't have any money. Blood from a turnip?
Also, how does one maintain a hillside?
Mark

John Clifford said...

When the hillside slid, there was a large outcry from Phillips Ranch. It's pretty rare that they show up at council, but when they do, they do in numbers. They cried, they complained, and in the end they blamed the city for not maintaining the hillside below them which is where the slide started.

Just because a property is vacant, worthless, and can't be built upon doesn't negate the responsibility of the owner (whomever that is) from maintaining the property. Just as we don't want banks who repossess homes to let them run down just because they can't sell them (and ruin our neighborhoods--yes I know that some of them do, but they shouldn't), the city can't be left off the hook if they were negligent in maintaining their property. AND, they gave the builder specific permission to build above, with the understanding that it was safe to do so. Had the lower hillside been owned by a private individual, I'd argue that they also had responsibility to maintain the hillside.

However, I'm not at all pleased with the way that this has played out. The city basically rolled over and allowed this to happen. I'm not sure, but in many cases cities are self-insured (they don't buy insurance but pay out claims themselves). I don't know if this is the case here, but it could end up coming out of our pockets at a time when there are a lot of other things that we need to be paying for.

Don't know if this helped, but hope it did.

Garrett Sawyer said...

Whether it was the city's fault or not I still don't think the city should compensate them. Why should they be compensated at those prices when their properties are no longer worth that much? Seriously, if the rest of Pomona knew about this they would be picketing in Phillips Ranch...No body said to move to Phillips Ranch so why is it coming out of tax payers pockets? How can you honestly not consider that your house may be doomed one day if you buy/rent on a hill?? Those people are living in a dream world, that explains why they paid so much for a "view". lol. They're taking advantage of the city and ignoring their own stupidity for living on a hill. Everyone knows the hills in California are prone to being unstable. geez... The rest of Pomona is always picking up the slack for Phillips Ranch, people should know that that's where a lot of their tax dollars are going. To keep Phillips Ranch nice and pleasant. What a joke. That's why it's called Phillips Ranch, and not Phillips Housing Development, it was only meant for ranching. lol.

John Clifford said...

Garrett,

While I can appreciate where you're coming from, and believe me I'm not for compensating stupidity, there are legal issues which apply here. If it is indeed the city's fault, then who should pay? The homeowners bought their homes with the assurance that the homes had been built to code and that the ground that they were on was stable. I don't agree that the ground was stable, but that is what the city of Pomona warranted, making them responsible.

I'm sure that your other arguments would be countered by those in Phillips Ranch. I'm sure that they feel that they're paying for a lot of programs that they don't see any benefit from (don't we all). But the city has to serve all of its citizens.

K said...

Thanks for the additional background, John. My concern was with "the assurance that the homes had been built to code and that the ground that they were on was stable." All too often, it seems like the developers are getting up in arms about "the nanny state telling them what they can do with their property" and threatening to sue, and then the folks who buy the houses wondering why the city didn't look out for them any better. There's a tension there, and I kinda feel like the city is getting it in the throat either way.

I'm also concerned about the maintenance issues. If this was a park for everyone in Pomona, then by all means, the city should be out there cleaning it up and mowing the grass and chasing away the gophers. But I drove out there and checked it out -- there are no signs, no parking, and little access. It's just a big open space area behind these folk's houses.

How much of our money is the city supposed to spend securing that hillside for the folks who live above it? If it's a matter of a few hundred bucks a year (which I'm sure those folks pay in property taxes), great, and I join the folks at Phillips Ranch in being aggravated that it wasn't done! If, because the developer managed to "give" that land to the city (and no doubt get tax breaks for it), we as a city suddenly had an obligation to spend millions securing the hillside, then there's been a serious screwup somewhere.

John Clifford said...

Screwup sounds like the operative word there, but I don't have any specific information.

I'm sure that the city was convinced that they would do SOMETHING with the property, but then the road to heck is paid with good intentions.

meg said...

From what I can tell, there wasn't a whole lot the city could have done with that land. It couldn't be built on, and it couldn't be turned into a park due to lack of road access.

I'd love to hear more about the history of that housing development and the patch of land in question. Not sure I have the many hours of detective work it would require, though.

John Murray said...

Let me try to clear up some misunderstandings here, the land where the slide initially accrued was to be maintained by the City and is City owned. There was little the home owners could do to prevent the slide as they relied on the City to maintain the slope. Also, home owners are not allowed to maintain the City property and if they do they can be fined.

The folks that live in Phillips Ranch do pay extra for maintenance through their property taxes for a Landscape Maintenance Zone.

Each single family home in the Zone pays an assessment of $278.26 per year. Which this year it is being voted on to go even higher by a proposed $114.00 per year. No other home owners in Pomona pay these fees.

You can read all about the proposed increase at the City's web site http://ci.pomona.ca.us/PhillipsRanchLandscapingMaintenanceZone.php

By law, these funds are held in a separate account and all expenditures are audited annually. This contradicts the statement by John Clifford "I'm sure that they feel that they're paying for a lot of programs that they don't see any benefit from (don't we all). But the city has to serve all of its citizens." Phillips Ranch residents do pay for maintenance and by law it is not to be used elsewhere.

For years I and others have fight to remove the divisions between those in Phillips Ranch and the rest of Pomona. An article such as this is divisive and is not necessarily in the best interest of the City as a whole. We in this city have some major issues and had better start working together to resolve them or nothing will change for the better in our community. No matter where we live.

The bottom line here is the City does have some culpability in this case.

meg said...

Thanks for the additional information, John (Murray, not Clifford -- although I for one appreciate his information too!). Do you have more info about the city's obligation with respect to that land? I think that's the crux of the discussion, at least as I understand it.

(Am I the only one who couldn't get John's link to work? I scanned all over the city website, but I couldn't find the Landscaping Maintenance info anywhere.)

The one place we part ways is about a discussion like this being divisive. Labeling people who pay attention to what's going and ask pertinent questions in order to understand things better as "divisive" isn't the way to improve our city.

Call me Pollyanna, but I firmly believe that the more information we all have, the better citizens we can be and the more the city will improve. I even imagine that you and I agree on this.

Heck, that's kinda the whole point of this blog. That and good eats (and beer!).

John Clifford said...

OOooooohhhhhhh BEER!

Forgive me. Actually I was able to get the link to work (or maybe the city was updating when Meg tried). Actually, I was talking about city taxes in general. I've heard from many parts of the city (not only Phillips Ranch) individuals complain that the city budget goes for stuff that doesn't impact them, and Philips Ranch, along with North Pomona, seem to express a lot of dissatisfaction with anything that has to do with the center of the city. I can't tell you the number of times that individuals from those two areas have questioned why there is so much focus on downtown.

Call that divisive if you will, but it's certainly a perception that I've seen. I agree that we need to come together, but it seems that whenever there is a controversy (sex offenders--North Pomona, mud slides, or Elephant Hill development--Phillips Ranch, police checkpoints--South East Pomona, or tearing down historic buildings--Lincoln Park) that only those who feel directly involved show up, and it almost always seems to be geographic in nature.

The city is divided. I for one would love to find a way to bring the city together as one, but I'm plum out of ideas. It seems that since we went to districts that the divisions have deepened even more. I was originally for districts because I saw where there were parts of the city that weren't represented at all. But now all the areas are represented, but there doesn't seem to be anyone who is bringing those areas together.

None of this, though, addresses the fact that the city screwed up and now we all have to pitch in to help pay $5.8 million for 5 families with destroyed houses.

K said...

John Murray, thanks for the extra info -- as a relatively new Pomona resident, I had no idea that folks up in Phillips Ranch were getting soaked for an extra $300 a year like that. That certainly helps explain some of the aggravation with the level of maintenance of the hillside.

What's the origin of the fees? Is this intended to help the city recoup the costs of the original infrastructure for Phillips Ranch (roads, lights, etc.) or was that already paid for by the original developer? Was it just an attempt to soak the "rich" (in scare quotes 'cause the homes that slid were, to my surprise, relatively modest)?

I could understand the city charging a little extra to keep down the brush in the areas around Phillips Ranch (since they don't have to do that in our part of the city), but charging extra for cleaning restrooms seems more than a little bogus (unless there are special, Phillips Ranch-only restrooms that are not available to the rest of us, which would be pretty odd).

I especially appreciate you posting with a different perspective, as we're all trying to figure out what's going on...

Garrett Sawyer said...

They could have not chose to live there in the first place....That's what they could have done.

It's very convenient that this information on the 'Phillips Ranch Landscaping Maintenance Zone' (something I've never heard of) is new on the site and it has it's own little button on the main page now. I don’t know why things suddenly appear when people start mentioning things but at least something is happening, I can be thankful for that.

Here Meg-
http://ci.pomona.ca.us/PhillipsRanchLandscapingMaintenanceZone.php

If that doesn't work then I don't know why. If you still haven't been able to get to it then just go to the main page of the city website where all those nice buttons are and the button to that page is right there, brand spanking new.

We all know Phillips Ranch get's special treatment, whether they shell out more money to the city or not. Just look at some parks, the parks in Phillips Ranch have really really green grass and only a mile away down the hill, Martin Luther Kind Jr. park has spotty grass that is brown and green and the bathrooms suck. And the 'skate park’ thing is a joke.

What I want to know is why aren’t the rest of Pomona's residents being asked for more money to pay for things that need fixing and sprucing up around the city? Why just Phillips Ranch? We don't have hillside brush down here at ground lever but there are many fields that need to be maintained perhaps through partnership with the owners. Many medians need work too, we should all contribute, not just Phillips Ranch if that's what it takes to have every area as nice as Phillips Ranch...I don’t know about 300 dollars but maybe less?

Garrett Sawyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Garrett Sawyer said...

Geez, that link is not showing up right. The reason why it works for me is because I read comments in my email.

let me try again....

http://ci.pomona.ca.us/
PhillipsRanchLandscaping
MaintenanceZone.php

Ed said...

The link to the assessment district info probably refects the upcoming vote on the assessment amount rather than a response to the court case.

The Phillips Ranch area has a number of greenbelts that need to be maintained so l'm not surprised that the residents are hit with a special assesment. We could question whether the cost of maintaining the green belts should be carried by the entire city, but I do see merit in the city's argument that those residents benefit disproportionately and therefore should carry some of the cost. Whether they should bear all the cost would be an interesting discussion.

On the issue of culpability for the slide, it seems obvious that the judge considered the city responsible, but I haven't read any court documents so l'm in the dark. I'd be interested in knowing whether excessive gopher activity was identified in the judge's opinion to be a likely contributor to the slide as suggested in the article.

Other questions that might have come up is whether the residents landscaping may have contributed? Did the residents bear any responsibility for the gopher problem? What liabilities were accepted by the city when they acquired the land?

What we might want to focus on is whether continued litigation is in the best interest of the city? What is the likelihood of winning on appeal? I would expect the affected residents are also giving some thought to these issues since they are still paying mortgages. And just to throw some salt onto the wound, how much money was being discussed in the pretrial negotiations? Could the city have settled for less? No easy answers, but Round 1 certainly went to the homeowners.

John Clifford said...

Thanks Ed for bringing this back into focus.

K said...

I'd really like some more information about this whole mess. Wandering around the city web site, I found a stern admonition that the City Attorney was only to be contacted by city staff, and wasn't available to the citizens (I'm [uncharacteristically] not actually griping about this; I understand that if he bills hourly, then I shouldn't be able to incur costs for the city by asking questions).

I tried looking up the case on the Superior Court website, which looked pretty complete, but I couldn't track down the case number without paying $5 for a search (which might not work).

Does anybody have some pointers about where to find more info? I'd love to go to the city council meeting Monday, but I have plans and won't be able to make it.

Ed said...

Here is a link that gives a little more of the homeowners' perspective. It looks like it might be from an LA Times article.

The above article lists the plaintiff's attorney as Michael Hearn, and the defense attorney as Robert J. Gokoo (couldn't find a website). I did find a city of West Covina document indicating Gokoo had provided legal advice on some risk management issues for that city. Both Pomona and West Covina use the same city attorney so that may explain the choice, and I don't know if the city of Pomona retained Gokoo for the trial.

Anyone know the case number and which court heard the case?

Al Alves said...

I am one of the homeowners. I can can give you the real info on this case. What the city doesn't tell you is that the hillside was built on an old landslide. The City knew this, and did not ensure that corrective measures were taken (presumably to save a buck or two?). This all happened over 30 years ago. They did not do the right thing and as a result, fill dirt was dumped on the slide area. To answer Garrett, the slide was on 98% of the city property. You call me dumb but if you would have seen the slide area you would know the hill is not very steep. We were NOT informed of these issues prior to buying this house. I'm not rich by any means. I bought this house in 1996 for $167,000, the house was a whopping 1500 square feet, and both my wife and I work hard. Believe me, we're not having tea parties and living this "rich lifestyle". We tried to work with the city, they wouldn't even work with us...they thought they could beat us in court. Now if the city appeals, tack on 10% every year of $5.8 million....so you talk about a waste of taxpayer money...they are spending taxpayer $$$ to fight an appeal that they are not going to win. We will win, our lawyer has never lost a case....yet in the meantime, all we have is a piece of paper that says we won the first round.

It seems like people are mad at us, when they should be mad at the City of Pomona. They caused this to happen. We have been displaced for over 3 years, we still owe a mortgage on broken dirt, our kid still cries out at night, and the bottom line all of this IS NOT OUR FAULT.

I appreciate your candidness in all of your blogs...but it is impossible for you to know all of the details of this case. Any of you are free to contact me at 909-816-7663...Take care, Al

Garrett Sawyer said...

I am a little sorry that you lost your home, but not fully. Everyone should know (no matter how steep a hill is their house is on) that there is no guarantee that it's proper state will last forever. It's a risk you were willing to take. The city of Pomona didn't make you buy that house. I am completely familiar with the Phillips Ranch area and I know that most of the homes are not on very steep hills but some (don't really know the exact term) are on 'embankments' of sorts (some artificial, some are not) where there is a strip of land in back of the homes. My brother works at a care home on Sundance and that house is situated as such. If you look over the wall in the back yard there is a significant drop leading to a strip of grass at the very bottom with a bike/pedestrian path. Call me crazy, but the word drop should be suggestive enough. What goes up must come down and you can't blame the city, it would have been safe without the heavy rains and even with them possibly, the city didn't make it rain, and you and all the other families probably would have bought the houses even if the city told you they were built on an old landslides. It would have made no difference at the time to you because the homes looked fine, they didn't look like they were on an old landslide and appeared as if they'd be safe, you bought them without suspicion that that could happen, that's why I think this is stupid.

No one says your having tea parties, regarless...having a tea party is something even I can do even though I'm not quite as well off as people in Phillips Ranch. Residents of Phillips Ranch, even though not insanely rich, are definitly richer than my family is, there is also an attitude difference. Maybe not among the adults but with the kids. I went to Diamond Ranch for a year and a semester and most of the kids pretty much treated me like a ground dweller. WOW, 1500 square feet huh? that's like 2/3 thirds bigger than my house. But it makes no difference...we're not concerned about square feet are we?

Anonymous said...

Dang, Garrett, STFU already.

South Po Resident

Ed said...

Al, thanks for commenting. The personal side of litigation is so often lost when you only think about the numbers.

Al, do you know the name of the lead defense attorney? How about the case number? I'm really interested in reading up on the case.

Good luck to your family and the others who have lost their homes.

Garrett Sawyer said...

Thank you for opening my eyes and making them roll, anonymous. I gave my opinion, so sue me...for $5.8 mil.

Anonymous said...

It seems, from the comments above, that you live in poverty and I doubt I could get $5.80 from you....lol.."rolls eyes"..

meg said...

Al, thanks for commenting in what may seem like a bit of a hostile environment! Thanks also for the additional information -- we all needed that.

Garrett and Anonymous, settle down now, you two.

Good online citizenship entails thinking carefully about what one posts and also ignoring people who get up one's nose.

Al Alves said...

The case number is "KC047449J" (County of LA east district) for those interested in the case. Gokoo was the attorney for the city of Pomona. Also I hope everyone here will come to the city council meeting on Monday July 7, 2008 to express your views. thank you Al

K said...

Al, thanks for speaking up, and thanks very much for the extra information. It must be pretty heartbreaking to have your home fall apart while you watch.