Landslide aid is slippery slope

BY PJ HELLER | SANTA BARBARA, CA | December 3, 1998

SANTA BARBARA, CA (Dec. 3, 1998) - Each morning when Jennifer Johns wakes

up, she looks out the window of her mountain home at the ever changing


It's not something she wants to see.

Since early 1998 when El Nino rainstorms pounded Southern California, her

home, along with more than a dozen others, has been slowly slipping down

the hillside.

Now, she and other residents find themselves on another slippery slope in

dealing with Santa Barbara officials who have balked at spending $1.1

million in federal funds to purchase the affected homes in the Sycamore

Canyon area.

City officials, in turn, point to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management

Agency) regulations that would require them to take title to the properties

and incur the potential liability.

"From a liability perspective, there's no reason for the city to take

title," insisted Bill McTomney, the city's public works administrative


Santa Barbara apparently is not alone in rejecting funds from the federal

program, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. to

address landslide issues, according to officials with the California

Governor's Office of Emergency Services. The program is patterned after

FEMA's mitigation efforts in flood-prone areas.

That program is designed to let governmental agencies purchase properties

for demolition or relocation in order to avoid future flooding problems.

The landslide program, administered by the state Office of Emergency

Services, was created in the wake of last winter's El Nino storms.

"There's never been a program like this before anywhere in the country to

address landslide issues," said Paula Schulz, a hazard mitigation officer

for the State of California.

Nationwide, landslides cause an annual loss of $1.5 billion and kill

between 25 and 50 people, FEMA reported.

Some governmental agencies in California have either refused to apply for

the FEMA grants or are refusing to accept the funds after applying because

of fear of liability issues that would come from owning property in a

landslide area.

Santa Barbara County opted not to apply for funds to help a small group of

homeowners whose homes have been damaged on the other side of Sycamore

Canyon from Johns.

Initially, agencies statewide had requested $87 million in mitigation

funds, according to John Rowden, program manager for hazard mitigation.

After a series of briefings, which included discussions about the

requirement to take title to affected properties, the actual funding

requests from 16 California communities fell to about $22 million, he said.

"There probably were some (agencies) that chose not to participate because

of the liability issue," Schulz said. "There were others who chose not to

participate because they didn't feel it was the best solution for the


Rowden added that some local agencies decided not to apply for the funds

because property owners did not want to participate in the program.

That's little solace to Johns, who said her home is moving about 6 inches a

week. With the winter rainy season just around the corner, she says she

doesn't know how much longer she will be able to live in the house. The

house was pushed 2 feet off level after last winter's landslide, she said.

"I'm not going to be in this house much longer," Johns predicted.

Her house, in the Sycamore Canyon area, is one of 22 parcels in the

landslide zone. There are 14 homes on those parcels, seven of which sought

mitigation funds. Two of the houses have been "red-tagged" indicating that

they are uninhabitable.

Johns said she was aware when she and her husband bought the house in 1986

that it was in a designated landslide area. (The city, in fact, adopted an

ordinance in the early 1980s banning any new construction in the area,

McTomney noted.) But living in the mountains with an ocean view and only a

short drive from town convinced Johns to buy the house.

"All things considered, even though I'm losing the house, I'd probably make

the same decision again," she said. "It's not the end of the world. It's

just the end of the house."

But walking away from the house isn't that simple for them or their

neighbors. They still owe about $140,000 on the mortgage. The FEMA buyout,

she said, would have almost covered the mortgage payoff. Her house has been

appraised with a pre-disaster value of $300,000, she said.

Johns said that insurance coverage for homes in a landslide area was


"There is no such thing," she said. "You can't buy it. If you could buy it,

I would own it."

With the city refusing to purchase the properties, Johns has launched a

major effort to find another public entity or non-profit willing to use the

FEMA funds to take over the land. Options include using the land for a park

or for farming, she said.

"It's kind of been dumped in the homeowners lap to handle it," she said.

McTomney said the city has formally complained to FEMA about the

requirement it take title to the property. City officials also contacted

their congressional representative to discuss the matter.

McTomney said the city was unaware it would have to take title to the

properties when it first made application under a "fast-track" process. Had

the city known that was the case, he said it would not have gone through

the "extensive effort" to file an application.

He said the ideal solution would be for the city to give the funds to the

affected residents, who would be required to either relocate or demolish

their homes. The residents would retain title to the property with a

covenant banning any future building or reconstruction without the express

written consent of FEMA.

"It's not the worst thing in the world," he said. "And they would be out of

there with the money."

Rowden, however, said that local governmental agencies should be

responsible for the sites, not the residents.

"If the local jurisdiction chooses not to pursue this program and accept

the funds, that's pretty much the end of the process," Schulz added.

Whatever happens, Johns, for one, says she'll always have fond memories of

living in the area.

"We've had 12 really good years here," she said. "I wouldn't have wanted to

miss this experience."

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