Nobody knew about the prehistoric landslide before the St. Francis Dam slid off of an unstable hillside in Saugus in 1928. You'd think it would have been a wake-up call, but developers have been building — and the public has been buying — new homes on the Santa Clarita Valley's slippery hillsides ever since.
Princess Homes. American Beauty Classics. Valencia Hills in the 1971 and 1994 earthquakes. And more. What next?
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." — George Santayana (1863-1952)
"Why do people build or live on hills?" — Scott Newhall, 4/2/1969
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Water is Busting Out All Over.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Thursday, September 16, 1965.
Sleeping inhabitants of the newest homes in Friendly Valley, the retirement community on Sierra highway in Newhall, were wakened about 3:30 a.m. Saturday by the rush of water.
Some peered out their windows and saw streets and lawns brimming with what appeared to be the crest of a flash flood.
A few watched with horror as water, the color of coffee with cream, crept under the doors and onto new wall-to-wall carpeting. Neighbors called to neighbors. Everybody was reassured; no one was hurt. But it was messy.
Little by little the word crept out: The dam had broken.
The dam was luckily a small one, recently built across Sierra highway, uphill from Friendly Valley, to serve the Princess Homes tract.
Ironically, the dam was in existence because of the recent water shortage in Saugus. When the county froze construction in all areas served by the Solemint water company (which included Princess Homes) the resourceful developers dug their own well and dammed a hillside pocket to serve as a reservoir for construction water. Building went on.
The reservoir contained about two million gallons of water — about the capacity of a very large storage tank. When the water broke through the front of the dam — for reasons unknown as yet — it roared down Sierra Highway, carrying tons of mud and rock, and turned into the lower Friendly Valley Road.
Though some of the metropolitan papers played up the accident as a major catastrophe, the damage turned out to be less than was first believed.
Ten newly completed homes, only two of which were occupied, had carpets and drapes damaged. Others had mud on their lawns, steps, and flower beds. By Sunday the worst had been cleaned up, and only a little mud in the gutters remained.
Luckily, there had been no traffic on Sierra Highway at the time, and highway equipment quickly cleaned up the debris.
By Monday, when a hearing on the water shortage opened in Friendly Valley, the sprinklers were again watering the cleaned-off lawns.
At Princess Homes, where no houses were within the flood range, the contractors hauled their construction water directly from the well in water trucks.
The county engineer's office was investigating the cause of the collapse.
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Princess Homes in Foothills.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Sunday, February 27, 1966.
Princess Homes, a planned community of 4,000 homes, is nestled in the foothills near Newhall, directly across from the community of Friendly Valley.
Ranging in price from $18,500 to $29,000, Princess Park Homes feature one and two story homes, and split level residences, with a choice of three, four, or five bedrooms.
Living space available in the 1,700-acre site ranges from 1,200 to 2,060 square feet with a choice of wood, composition, or rock roofs.
Fireplaces, dishwashers, built-ins, and spacious garages are but a few of the outstanding features of Princess Park Homes.
Choice view lots can be purchased at the buyer's choice from seven to 14,000 square feet FHA and VA financing is available.
Nearby are ample schools, recreation and shopping facilities. Additional commercial and shopping areas are planned for the community, and an underground utility system adds to the suburban living of the community, according to Louis Feller, president of Princess Park Homes.
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Big Sliding Crisis Perils Local Homes.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Friday, August 2, 1968.
Though definitely not advertised on any of the onerous billboards that once dotted the Valencia Valley countryside, many of the houses in Princess Park Estates come equipped, at no extra charge, with cracked ceilings, bulging floors and gaping molding where the breezes blow through.
It is because of these extra features that have literally "popped" up, that the irate residents of the tract located across from Friendly Valley on Highway 14 have decided to make their complaints a little more verbal. According to one Princess housewife who contacted The Signal, about 60 of the homes in the area are suffering from numerous cracks, splits, breaks and gaping holes that have occurred within the last eight to 10 months.
"We moved into our house as soon as it was finished, and we had been in only about two months when the first hairline cracks began to appear in the walls and ceilings," explained a 25-year-old mother of three.
"Ever since we decided there was something really wrong with the house we have been complaining but they, the builders, have just kept putting us off."
Problems in the houses at this point range from the tiny cracks that first signaled residents of trouble, to crumbling floors that tend to feel rather "up and downish" as one walks across a room. "Though it is not always easy to see the problems, being housewives, we're down scrubbing them and it's easy to tell then."
While residents claim the problems are being felt in as many as 60 of the houses, the extent of the damage varies greatly. In one home, where the husband asked that his house not be photographed due to what he feared could be reprisal from the builders, the den floor appears like a convex lens with the center of the floor rising some six inches from outside walls, giving the effect of a cement ant hill protruding from the middle of the room.
In another home, occupied by a family of four, blankets and masking tape line the edge of the floor where the walls join to keep out the air.
"I finally had to put the blankets down there; I know they really look bad, but in the winter the air coming in those cracks is terrible, and especially bed far the children.
"One thing I would like to show you however," commented the distraught housewife as she led the way to her main bathroom at the front of the house, "is the problem we have in the bath tub." A quick perusal of the tub, explained the homemaker, would quickly reveal why her husband couldn't take a shower. Where the tub should have met the wall tile, a half inch crack had opened so that shower water would have crept into the wall itself.
But for all of the problems with the construction itself, the angry young mothers have much more to say about their treatment, or lack of same from the builders of the homes. "We started complaining about the problem within a few months after we moved in, over a year and a half ago, and they just got around to repairing the house about three months ago."
While the woman complaining was one of a very few homeowners who have had their homes repaired, she was also one of the most outspoken about grievances with Princess Park Homes.
"They originally moved us into the house next door that was vacant, and they promised that our house would be completed within about a month's time. It has now been three months, and they say they have completed it. But we don't want to accept it."
According to the dissatisfied mother, a number of things will have to be settled before the family is ready to take back their home. "We had put over $1,800 in improvements into the property," explained the owner of the four-bedroom house, "and we figure there is about $500 damage done to the house that the builders did not repair.
"Things like the wallpaper on the walls, and the grass in the back yard. All these things were destroyed in the process of repairing the house, and the company has refused to either replace or make compensation for them.
"These are the reasons we don't think we should accept the house, but the builders claim their only responsibility is to return the heme to its original condition when it was first built; that doesn't include all the work we've done and we definitely think it should."
While the couple has decided to take a strong stand on the condition of their home by refusing to accept it, the two fear they may have little in the way of an alternative. "We got a letter from the Princess Homes attorney, or someone like that, which said in essence that if we didn't move back into our home they would file charges against us for trespassing and willfully withholding property. Now we1 don't know what to do."
The couple's problems have far from lessened, however, and just yesterday, a superintendent at the tract dropped by the house to inform the family that, contrary to any previous promises the company apparently made, they would have to find a way to move themselves back into their original, now repaired home.
"They promised when they moved us out that they would move us back in," complained the angry young wife.
While residents with problems had plenty to say about their cracks and the builders, Princess Homes in San Diego had little or nothing to say about the cracks or the residents.
When contacted by The Signal to comment on the accusations thrown by the home owners, Richard Casper, Assistant Secretary for the corporation, refused to comment and couldn't understand why any paper should do a story on the problem.
"You don't have the full story," the construction man kept repeating as he warned that if he were a paper he would be "very careful" about putting anything in print. Though the executive did take part in two successive calls with this paper, his final word was that "We've always taken care of our problems in the past, and we don't intend to walk out on this one."
But if the builder is confident, the homeowners are certainly not reassured by any promises he may make. "They keep saying they're waiting for the soil studies to come back, but why didn't they do them before they build the houses?" asked one angry housewife.
On the matter of the actual cause of the problem, and quite contrary to the strangely quiet Casper, Doug Brown, Engineer and Geologist now working for Princess, tried to explain in lay terms what the soil problem was.
"Though our studies are not complete and a report will not be presented for another month, the basic problem with the land up there is one of expansive soil."
"Expansive soil," according to Brown, is a condition where the ground has a high water content which makes it expand. "In the case of these homes, after the slabs are laid, the water in the soil tends to collect under the slab — and when it expands, you get problems." These are the problems many of the homes are presently encountering.
Brown did stress that the precautions that Princess did make before building rightfully were expected to be "more successful." At the present time, Brown and his associates are attempting a number of corrective measures to solve the soil problem so that rebuilding can take place.
"We are presently trying to  a number of the homes and trying lime insertions into the soil." According to the soil specialist, lime usually adds solidarity to the types of clay soil on which these homes are built.
However, despite assurances from Casper and Brown's lime insertions, the nervous residents of Princess are still waiting for the builders to "take care of the problem."
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Homeowners Set for Legal Fight.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Friday, August 9, 1968.
Princess homeowners, who have recently become television celebrities as a result of the sliding earth which is periling some 60 homes, have found little to comfort them.
County officials have told them that as many as ten of their dwellings are threatened by a slow "land slide," and that the soil conditions in the troubled tract are "a big unknown."
The homeowners, who have been unsuccessful in getting any official word from the builders of the tract, finally decided Wednesday night to her an attorney  the matter out.
The decision to seek more extensive legal counsel came after both The Signal and a major Los Angeles television station failed to elicit any response from the Princess Homes builders as to the accuracy of residents' charges on any corrective measures the company plans.
A spokesman for the homeowners, most of whom wish to remain unidentified because they fear there might be repercussions, said the small group would visit an attorney to determine exactly what legal action could be taken. After the initial meeting, any action that may be taken would be discussed with other homeowners and, according to the leader at that time, a larger group would decide what actdion to take.
 actual builders of Princess Park Homes have refused as of yet to make any statement to the news media, other than that administrators feel the whole situation is "not newsworthy."
The County Department of Engineers yesterday tried to explain their own views and responsibilities in such a case.
Coleman Jenkins, Superintendent of Building for the County, visited Princess Homes Wednesday night for a taped interview with KABC-TV news, and had quite a lot to say about the peculiar land situation.
"While the building code certainly takes into consideration this type of condition with expansive soil, this land acts differently than any other we've seen or heard of," explained the superintendent, apparently agreeing with a Princess Park geologist that the main cause of the problems was an expansive soil condition.
When questioned by newsmen on the developers attempts to correct the situation, Glen Martins, county supervising civil engineer also on hand for the interview, reiterated the fact that the builders are doing extensive soil sampling to determine the answer to the expansive condition.
"They are running tests on at least two homes with lime injections and other corrective measures. They have attempted to correct some houses the best way they knew how."
As to any real alternatives the builder had that might have averted such problems, Jenkins was hesitant to say that anything would have entirely altered the condition. "It's a very unusual condition," the patient engineer explained. "In some cases like this, a wood floor construction would have resulted in less damage or even completely altered the condition.
"Last October cracks were noticed in the street on Abdale Street, in Unit Two I believe, and a few months later cracks began to appear in the street above.
"It appeared to be an extension of the same problem, so we met with the builders and asked that they immediately start studies on the soil. Yesterday, the developer's representative brought in a map with the boundaries of what they had found to be a slow moving land slide."
Continuing with his discussion of the slide, Jenkins added that, "It appears to be moving at the rate of one-eighth of an inch a week, which makes it a very slow slide, and its boundaries included some 10 lots."
Though the slide situation is completely different than the general expansive soil condition blamed for most of the other damage to houses, the engineering superintendent reported that he had been assured that there was no immediate danger to the houses. Injections should eventually stop the slippage already underway, he added.
As for any lessons the county may have learned from the Princess Park property, Jenkins explained that his department had put a moratorium on any permits where the soil is over 12 percent expansive — the Princess soil in question varies from 14 to 20 percent.
"In 1965 the building code was revised to include regulations for expansive soil conditions, and this is the first case of trouble that we have had since then."
Have they had similar problems before? "With this type of soil, No. With expansive soil, Yes. Probably the biggest situation of this type was the one in Conejo Valley, but even this wasn't exactly the same kind of soil."
One of the reasons that the local soil has geologists and engineers in such a quandary is that they have simply never seen anything like it.
"There are places such as Palos Verdes in the county where the soil is much more expansive, and they have little or no sign of these types of problems," commented Jenkins on the local phenomenon.
"We are now involved with detemining what sort of stipulations we can set down for building on this type of soil.
According to the building administrator, his office is now involved with determining what sort of stipulations they should set down for building. One of the possible remedies he mentioned would involve taking some three feet of soil off the top of the lot, blending it with a certain percentage of sandy soil and then recompacting it to reduce the expansive character of the soil.
Though the engineer reports that compaction has been found to be a very helpful measure in such instances, the feasibility of this aiding the Princess Park situation is slim since it would involve moving the homes and recompacting the soil beneath.
But while the superintendent was more than helpful in his own area, many of the questions local homeowners want answered must still await word from the strangely silent builders in distant San Diego.
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Four Families Ordered to Move.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Monday, February 10, 1969.
Four residents of Abdale Street in the Princess Park homes development on the southeast slope of Valencia Valley, received startling news about noon on Friday.
They were told that they had 24 hours to get out of their homes.
Representatives of the county Building and Safety Department came by and tacked printed notices on their doors. The large letters read: UNSAFE. DO NOT ENTER OR OCCUPY.
The occupants of homes at 19210, 19218, 19226 and 19232 Abdale, near the corner of Fairgate, spent the next hectic 24 hours packing, calling relatives to take care of children, borrowing trucks.
Meanwhile, a pumping rig worked in turn in the back yard of each house, evacuating water from homes drilled to a 40-foot depth.
Abdale Street, which sloped down in front of the houses, has for a year been developing a substantial fold that in places amounts to a foot-deep drop. The sidewalk was buckled and broken; on some of the houses, porch and front steps had broken loose and seemed about to move away.
P.R. Fimple, the only renter among the four, was surrounded by hastily packed boxes. His three daughters, 12, 10 and 5, had been shipped off to their grandparents in the San Fernando Valley, and the Fimples were planning to spend the night in a motel.
"We got a call at work yesterday from Lindley Williamson of the Building and Safety Department. He said we could spend only one more night in the house. I don't know where we're going to put all this stuff while we find another place to live."
Elizabeth Tate, vice president of Princess Park Homes, explained that the developers had themselves requested action by the county department, when engineering studies revealed that the houses were becoming seriously unsafe.
"The trouble all began with the earthquake just before Easter last year," she said. "It opened up some underground fissures, and water began pouring out, undermining the slope above and causing the houses to move."
She added, "We have been making tremendous studies, with every kind of expert — geologists and soli engineers. We have run continuous experiments with the two unoccupied houses on the hill above, trying to develop an answer to this unforeseen problem."
The developers will undertake complete repair of all the affected homes, she said, and hope to have the situation corrected and the houses repaired within a few months. Meanwhile, she added, "We are going to try to make temporary housing available to these people as fast as we possibly can."
One family, the Ralph R. Burrells, of 19210 Abdale, were able to move immediately with their two children into the only available empty home in the tract. The two other families are temporarily installed with friends and relatives.
"It's a terrible situation," said Mrs. Tate. ''Terrible for the owners and awful for us. We have built 22,000 homes in the San Diego area — and we've never run into a problem like this before."
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A Tale of Tears and Lost Homes.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Wednesday, February 19, 1969.
The emotionally spent residents of Abdale Street in Newhall stood by almost motionless and wept in the street yesterday as they revealed that one of their neighbors had been notified that they must, within the next 48 hours, demolish their own home or have the county do it.
Mrs. Ralph Burrell looked almost beside herself as she stood outside her crumbling home and related to television reporters the terrible events that led up to the notice she received Monday from the County:
"Further inspections of your home at 19210 Abdale Street, Newhall, finds that due to recent accelerated progress of the landslide affecting the property, the building is now structurally unsafe and poses a hazard to the occupied dwelling at 19200 Abdale Street."
The almost unbelievable message, with all its horrendous implications, was received Monday night by industrial camera man, Ralph Burrell.
As if the beginning of the note had not been foreboding enough, the next paragraph went into almost sickening details on the realities of the county report:
"The building must be demolished or adequate corrective steps taken to remove this hazard within the next 48 hours. Failure on your part to comply with the above may result in the County of Los Angeles doing the work necessary, in which case you will be billed by the County for all costs incurred."
Such, in essence, want the text of the message that has overnight changed the lives of at least one family, and will no doubt before it is over, affect at least three other homeowners who live on the sliding street.
The sudden move by the County, which came absolutely as no surprise to the owners who have been dreading the possibility of the same, merely freed them to become quite verbal about what they had failed to comment on before.
"You can use my name this time," declared Mrs. Frankie Clark who, until the condemnation proceedings, lived just two houses from the Burrells.
"Up until now, I was worried about what I should say for fear that Feller (Lou Feller, the builder) would kick us out of our house." The house she was referring to was the temporary home the Princess builder had given them to live in when their own houses were condemned.
"But now I just don't care. What else can he do to us?" she sobbed.
"We have asked him to move our home while it is still structurally sound, but he won't do it." The work ... the time ... the effort my husband put into it, and we're going to lose it all. What more can he do to us?"
The emotional Mrs. Merrill, who has not yet received the letter that has changed the lives of neighbors, is by far the most outspoken in her hatred for the builder who she believes seems to be inciting the already highly charged owners.
While the blame for the terrible incident on the hillside has yet to be placed, there is little doubt that the housing developer is believed to some extent to be responsible by all those owners involved.
He constantly avoids the enraged homeowners who would track him down and hold him responsible. He mysteriously maintains one of his homes in San Diego and the other here.
At the same time, he has the time to set up social engagements with members of the local press while being unable to ever converse with his threatened homeowners.
Once the signs were clear, however, that the builder would maintain his remote silence, the residents, who may soon if not immediately have to demolish their own homes, have decided it will be all-out war with Feller.
"He is a marshmallowy soft man," claimed his wife, Elizabeth Tate, just moments before Mrs. Burrell and Mrs. Merrill described him in a slightly lees printable manner.
Playing a very central part in the whole melodramatic affair is the giant County of Los Angeles, on whose heads rest the final responsibility for destroying the homes involved.
Far from upset with the county, however, the residents see in the powerful building and safety department one of their most important assets. Lyndley Williamson, local representative from the Building and Safety office is about the only man involved about whom the Merrills and Burrells speak highly. "He has been up here almost daily," explained the women as they elaborate on the efforts of the man who has provided more than anything a friendly ear and an understanding attitude.
Readying to do battle with Princess Homes and Feller, the homeowners are squaring off for a fight that may well see the friendly county man reveal some very interesting information on the responsibility of the situation.
While no one, including the owners who are understandably distraught from grief, blame Feller for the slide itself, it is clear that sooner or later that a responsibility must be placed — and the builder has appeared terribly quiet.
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More New Homes Will Be Destroyed.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Monday, February 24, 1969.
The rubble has been cleared away now on Abdale Street and the neighborhood is quietly waiting for word as to when the next demolition of a family's house will begin.
Things on the street looked quite normal Friday — as normal as any street can when there is a vacant lot in the middle of the block and a four-foot bulge in the middle of the concrete and asphalt street that runs up the middle.
Most noticeably different from the scene of the previous day was the absence of the onlookers who flocked to the crumbling street to watch a house tumble to the ground as wrecking crews demolished it before it could cause even greater damage to the neighboring homes.
But if the streets were quiet, there was no let-up in concern on the part of the four homeowners involved in the tragic occurrence.
The John Stanchfield family, who have not received a temporary house from the developer to move into as several of their neighbors have, were busy moving bricks, carpeting, plants and anything else they could from their property. The Stanchfields have had to find shelter outside of the Princess development and are all staying in one room at the home of Mrs. Stanchfleld's mother in the San Fernando Valley.
As money began pouring in for the "Sliding Houses Fund," the total quickly reached $857 as actor Chuck Connors, who had already made a large donation or loan to the Merrill family put in an extra $500 to go towards helping all of the families involved.
Connors, who expressed great concern over the events that preceded the slippage, appeared on television Friday to plead for more help for the local families.
As the news media continued to cover the events happening in such rapid succession on the faulty street, the builder and the county, both prime suspects for the responsibility of the situation, began to stress their concern and declared that they are doing all they could.
One county representative on hand to view the situation Friday was visibly alarmed when one of the homeowners standing by mentioned some fear that, when the real facts are known, there might be a payoff uncovered.
The most immediate plans expressed by the owners, who are quickly becoming organized to protect themselves, is to approach the problem on legal grounds by instituting immediate legal action.
Princess Builder: He Talks.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Monday, February 24, 1969.
Lou Feller, the man whose name has become a household word among the Princess Estates homeowners during the past two weeks, surfaced long enough Friday to make some comments about the sliding lots which are destroying a number of Valencia Valley houses he built.
Feller, who is president of the San Diego-based company which constructed the mammoth housing development east of Newhall, had been out of touch to both newsmen and homeowners for the past ten days.
Quite predictably, when he finally broke his silence, he was adamant in defending his company's role in the sliding crisis which will likely destroy at least five or six new dwellings.
"It is very unfortunate; we feel very sorry for the people involved," Feller began in his exclusive interview with The Signal.
The home-building executive has been the target of angry charges leveled by the residents of Abdale Street who believe that he has been totally unresponsive to the financial crises they are facing.
"That's not fair," Feller insisted. "We have expended a great deal of money in trying to save those homes. Last fall, we paid for a geologist to study the area completely; we spent a lot of money in trying to stop the slide then."
Feller did insist on a point which seemed to contradict what both local homeowners and several county officials had previously reported. "The heavy rainfall is responsible; if it hadn't rained so hard, we wouldn't have had the sliding."
A county engineer had reported earlier in the week that the site of the most severe sliding — a one-half block area along Abdale Street — was directly in the path of "a prehistoric landslide. The rains have nothing to do with it," he told the homeless residents.
"I won't argue the point," Feller was insisting Friday, "but I will say this. We had the top soil engineers and geologists — selected from an approved county list — study the area carefully before we built our homes.
"Their studies obviously met county specifications, or they wouldn't have allowed us to build there — would they?" he added, almost challengingly.
Feller did make one concession which would likely partially alleviate the deepest fears of the families who are losing their homes and, in many cases, their life savings:
"They will get relief. I'm sure they can get their money back through the courts." The wealthy builder balked, however, when asked to name who would make up the financial losses.
"Maybe the insurance companies — maybe someone else," he said. He refused to suggest that his own company might share in the financial responsibility.
"We have done a lot already," he insisted. "We have supplied temporary homes to at least four of the families. I know it's rough on them, and we all sympathize with them."
Feller revealed that he had been in Valencia Valley at least several times during the last two weeks. He said he had personally talked to two of the stricken families just last Monday, and that he was planning to return both today and Wednesday to assess the situation.
In the meantime, the anger and frustration of the six Abdale families has not declined at all.
They were convinced Friday that Feller was still trying to avoid them. But they were vowing to track him down to discuss their grievances.
It appears likely that there will be more than six angry families levelling charges at Feller and the county, however. Small fissures were beginning to appear in the yards of several other homes located about a block away from the Abdale area.
"That's not another slide," said Feller. "Those are just small cracks they won't get any worse."
A deputy county engineer had a far different interpretation, however. "It looks just like Abdale did six months ago," he admitted in almost hushed tones. "Don't quote me, but I'll be damned surprised if we don't have another major slide on our hands."
Lou Feller desperately hopes the engineer is dead wrong.
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Sliding Disasters — More Ahead.
An Exclusive Study of Tract Problems.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Wednesday, March 26, 1969.
This is the first of a four-part series on the sliding home crisis which struck Valencia Valley last month. Part II will appear Friday.
Developers in many Southern California hillside communities are gambling on the future safety of unwary residents by building homes in high-risk geological hazard areas, it has been learned exclusively by The Signal.
For nearly a decade, contractors have knowingly built homes, shopping centers and roads in foothills prone to earth slippage, mudslides and water damage.
Residents of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Hollywood Hills, the San Bernardino Mountains, Highland Park, Saugus, Topanga Canyon and Orange County in the past year have all shared one common fact. They were not aware of the natural forces battling underneath their homes — until it was too late.
Despite claims of government officials that less than one-tenth of one percent of houses in hillside areas have been damaged, the record has been splotched with individual tales of disaster.
Those who had the misfortune to participate in the tragedies felt the physical force of the earth and knew they were at its mercy. To them, living in a hillside area was an event which is indelibly etched in their memories, a frightful experience remaining with them until death.
Slithering mud last February 25 turned a fire station in the Silverado Canyon district of Orange County into a tomb in which five storm refugees met a torturous death from suffocation.
Denise Stewart, 16, and her sister, Ann, 12, were unaware their Mt. Baldy cabin was in the path of a potential waterway. Their bodies were found by sheriff's deputies and their father, Donald James Stewart, 50, who subsequently suffered a heart attack and died.
Rainbow Avenue, a street which many said was as pretty as its name, died on Mt. Washington in Highland Park following the February downpour. Eleven of 17 homes, many of them in the $25,000 class, groaned and crashed into a gorge after residents escaped.
In February of 1966, tons of rain-soaked earth oozed down the steep embankment at Enchanted Way and Via Santa Ynez in the Pacific Palisades area, sweeping away the houses and dreams of three families. Another three houses — on the same property — were destroyed by a landslide in August 1959.
Portuguese Bend, sedately nestled near the Pacific Ocean and populated by retired corporation presidents, industrialists and executives, began losing about 200 acres of its geography to the sea in early 1956. Grotesque cracks in walls bear silent witness to the "creeping" landslide which scientists are unable to stop as the earth continues to tear at the remainder of 120 homes and bring damage in excess of $7.4 million.
Not until Princess Park Sierra Estates was the human emotion of massive landslides brought to Valencia Valley. Five families on Abdale Street and Beachgrove Court, at first hopeful, were told by February there was no chance for the survival of their homes. Three houses were ordered sacrificed by the county in a last-ditch effort to relieve pressure on the landslide.
But the damage in these areas and many others had not gone unforseen. Los Angeles City Councilman Ernani Bernardi, a former housing contractor, warned San Fernando Valley residents in the early 1950s about "questionable" building practices underway on steep slopes.
Bernardi took his drive to the city council and demanded more restrictive grading ordinances which took effect in Los Angeles in 1963. The councilman recalled that tougher regulations were fought by the "building interests" and Mayor Sam Yorty.
Despite the ordinances, Bernardi maintains, "there are areas in hillsides that ought not to be built on.
"Just by their very nature, hills are the results of some kind of (geologic) activity."
A U.S. government geologist, he said, surveyed many portions of the city and advised, "No buildings should be permitted on some property, irrespective of the kind of grading regulations required."
"Even in the natural hills, there is movement there constantly," Bernardi said.
Grading and building on hilly terrain greatly increases the risk, the councilman explained. Layers of rock beneath a development will often become unstable.
As the full extent of the Portuguese Bend disaster was realized, both the City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles adopted policies requiring in-depth geologic reports by private consultants prior to the issuance of building permits in hillside areas.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in April of 1960 ordered the establishment of an Engineering Geologist Qualifications Board to certify private specialists it felt worthy to investigate and report on the geology of potential building sites.
Until that time, according to Eugene A. Fritsche, associate professor of geology at San Fernando Valley State College, "anyone could go out and claim be was a geologist."
Although the state legislature authorized creation of a California licensing board for geologists, none exists. Fritsche said.
The status of geology as a science has come under questioning from several quarters. Among the apprehensive is Bernardi, who said, "Even the best geologists will admit it is not an exact science."
Geology, although about 200 years old, only came to the fore following the discovery of uses for petroleum products, which the specialist was able to locate with much more ease than the layman, Bernardi said.
Arthur G. Keene, Head Engineering Geologist for the county, described geology more as an "art" in which the judgment of the individual still plays a large part.
The extent to which a geologist uses his knowledge and applies it to the grading and building problems, Keene said, will determine to how great a measure the hillside subdivision will be free of damage.
Unlike other disciplines, according to Fritsche, the geologist often deals with rock formations he can't see because they are buried.
"It's just like having a dictionary with only half the words in it," the assistant professor said.
County Engineer John A. Lamble, a veteran of more than 33 years with his department, pointed out in a prepared statement that "only about 30 out of approximately 120,000 lots processed" under grading ordinances, strengthened by the county in 1957, have been damaged by slides.
Until the discovery of landslides in Princess Park Estates, subdivisions were believed to be assured of geological safety through the scrutiny of such agencies as the Federal Housing Administration, the County Engineer's Department, the California Department of Veterans Affairs and the investigatory arms of various banks and lending institutions.
However, less than a week after the issuance of Lamble's statement on March 6, county Supervising Civil Engineer Glenn Martin disclosed the presence of a landslide affecting four homes near Topanga Canyon.
All were approved under existing ordinances although the grading was performed about 20 years ago, he said.
Three of the houses, between 20211 and 21252 Summit Road, also were cleared for construction by county-certified geologists and considered to be on firm rock, Martin said.
However, residents were evacuated before one of the dwellings settled six feet below street level and the others sustained major damage.
Asked if traditional assurances of safety to residents preparing to live in canyons and on ridges had been diminished, Martin said:
"You can't deny the fact that there would be some risk ... that someone would miss something or make a mistake."
Other doubts were expressed unofficially by representatives of the county Engineer's Department, who feared additional landslides would result throughout Southern California this summer when rainwater seeps into varying rock strata located far below the earth's crust.
The problem was summed up by assistant professor Fritsche, who said of developers:
"They don't understand the problems enough to be concerned about what they're doing. They think they're doing all right. They have lived here all their lives. They've never seen anything slide before, 'So how could it slide now?' When the geologist tells them there might be a slide there, they don't really believe it. It takes a year like this to really wake people up."
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Anatomy of a Slide Crisis.
Why Slides Threaten Homes.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Friday, March 28, 1969.
This is the second in a four-part series on the sliding problems which caused the demolition of a number of Valencia Valley homes last month. The third part in this exclusive series will appear in Monday's edition.
Everyone agreed that Princess Park Estates was to be an asset to Valencia Valley.
Members of the Regional Planning Commission after hearing Zoning Case No. 4833 on October 13, 1964, were certain Princess Park would set an example for many other developers to follow.
Ray Rainwater, then vice president of the subdividing company, promised the five commissioners Los Angeles County would benefit from the transition of 375 acres of grass, willows and brush into houses.
"We generally stay with this type of a development as opposed to flat land," said the vice president, who received the vocal support before the commission of his project manager, Phillip Gerard.
The two testified unopposed. There were no letters to the commission either supporting or condemning the tract. No public representatives came to the hearing to ask the developer if the land was suitable for housing.
Princess Park Estates, according to the experts, should have been a placid residential district. It wasn't.
Five years later an estimated 80 homes would be buckled, spilt and lacerated by geologic events that baffled the experts. Rainwater would have moved on, becoming an executive assistant to San Bernardino Mayor Alvin C. Ballard.
What ended in personal tragedy began as a transaction on August 14, 1964. Amean G. Haddad, a land speculator, and five relatives sold their real estate to Princess Homes Investment for about $2 million.
Its purchasers, Princess Park Estates Inc., a San Diego-based firm, hoped to gross $80 million after cultivating the hills into "pads" suitable for supporting 4,000 homes.
The land underneath the willows, alders, oaks, yucca, sage, manzanita and elderberries was perfect for Princess' operations. A rustic ranch house that mirrored California's past would be torn down. The wildcat oil drilling holes would be covered.
"We have much rougher stuff than this in San Diego, but it lends itself well to the type of houses and gives a view for those two-story and Spanish-type houses. We work this type of terrain generally," Rainwater testified.
Louis Keller, president of Princess Park Estates, had begun the slow process of receiving county sanction for his work when he completed a petition for zone change exactly a week after the land purchase.
The petition questionnaire routinely inquired how the proposed zone change "will be in the interest of furtherance of public health, safety and general welfare."
In the space provided, Feller replied:
"By eliminating dry brush and providing irrigated area, the fire hazard will be reduced. Land values will be increased and therefore tax yield will be increased to the general public."
While staff members for the Regional Planning Commission investigated Feller's request for a change of zone from agricultural to residential, multiple-residential and commercial, the machinery of a modern homebuilder was being set in motion.
Princess Park Estates, Inc. had gone through the same procedure many times before. By Rainwater's account to the planning commission, the company had built about 1,000 to 1,200 homes a year since its formation on February 17, 1958.
An outgrowth of General Construction Company, Princess Homes Inc. issued 1,000 shares of stock and listed Bertha Feller, Robert J. Dahlston, Ralph E. Spaid and David E. Neal, all of the San Diego area, as its board of trustees.
The Subdivision Committee, a panel of advisers to the County's Regional Planning Commission, met on October 5, 1964, to consider the requested zone change and the proposed tract.
Representatives of the director of planning, the county engineer, the road commissioner, the county health officer, the director of parks and recreation, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles County Flood Control district and the county fire chief met to discuss the proposed housing development.
They recommended the matter be considered by the full commission at its regular meeting on October 13.
In the interim, S. Iguchi, a civil engineer in the Department of County Engineer, issued a routine warning to the planning commission's research staff. The letter, dated October 8, 1964, stated, "The property is subject to flood hazard, sheet overflow and high velocity scouring action from storm water runoff."
Iguchi suggested placement of debris basins, storm drains and backyard drainage ditches in addition to a program of planting vegetation to alleviate the danger of the combined forces of gravity and rainfall eroding the property.
Removal of the brush by earthmovers, he said, would strip the hillsides of much of their ability to absorb water.
Present building code requirements, Iguchi later explained, are based on the expectancy of a 25-year storm's maximum rainfall.
Only a storm of an intensity greater than that expected in a 25-year period could send water tumbling over curbs, drainage ditches and debris basins, he said.
Ironically, the Regional Planning Commission was to meet the day before Iguchi's warning was received by the advisory staff of the planning department. The letter, which had been mailed six days prior, never came to the attention of the commission itself.
The stage was set for Zoning Case No. 4833. Notices of an impending zone change were mailed to 81 property owners within a 500-foot radius of the proposed subdivision.
The Mint Canyon Chamber of Commerce, the Sulphur Springs Union School District, the Newhall-Saugus Chamber of Commerce, the County Flood Control District, the Southern California Gas Company and the Edison Company were informed. Of the more than 130 persons notified about the proposed subdivision none appeared in the Hall of Records to voice their opposition when chairman Arthur J. Baum sounded the gavel at 9 a.m. in Hearing Room 868.
Commissioners Baum, Mrs. L.S. Baca, Alison E. Abernathy, Louis Kanaster and Owen H. Lewis listened as staff members of the planning department described the proposed development, the nearby Friendly Valley subdivision and zoning conditions in the Valencia Valley area.
Rainwater, smiling, was sworn in to testify before the commission, which had assembled behind a large table. The developer told his examiners the land should be altered to houses because much of Valencia Valley already was slated for subdivisions.
There already was a subdivision across Sierra Highway in Friendly Valley, he said.
"A small buffer section of R-3 along that side of the road would be advantageous to the development of this area as it gently goes up that slope," Rainwater explained to his attentive audience.
The hilly terrain, Rainwater testified, would be a help rather than a hindrance for Princess Park Estates.
"This is the type of lot that we need for our particular house that we develop," the vice president said.
Baum asked, "You're going to plant some trees in there, aren't you, because I notice that you practically haven't any trees in this area at all?"
"Well, we hope for the first time that we're going to give a complete landscape job. We're working now on whether we can do that for the cost," Rainwater quickly replied.
"It certainly will enhance the value of your property by having it properly landscaped," the commissioner said.
Rainwater testified Princess Park would have dwelling units on 1,196 lots, complemented by apartment houses and stores. Homes, he estimated, would range in price between $22,000 and $32,000.
"Well, Mr. Rainwater, you have a very ambitious program and I want to, as one commissioner, compliment you because I think this would be very wonderful for Sand Canyon if it's developed along the lines you've illustrated to us this morning," Baum said.
"We city slickers like to have you fellows from San Diego come up here and spend your money..." another commissioner added.
The commission chairman asked, "Could I have a little motion please?"
"Well, yes of course," commissioner Abernathy said.
"Mr. Chairman, I move that Zoning Case No. 4833 be taken under submission for further study."
Two weeks later, on October 27, 1964, at its regular meeting, the commission announced its decision. The proposed subdivision would "provide for reasonable development of this land, considering location, topography and surrounding development."
Never in the three months the proposed subdivision was under study by the planning department and the Regional Planning Commission had a check been made with San Diego County authorities to determine the success or failure of Princess Park developments there.
Although Princess Park Estates was to be located in a geographic area relatively untapped by geologists and soils engineers, the commission did not inquire if cut-and-fill operations would be amendable.
County Supervisors Frank G. Bonelli, Kenneth Hahn, Ernest E. Debs, Warren M. Dorn and Burton W. Chace on December 3, 1964, unanimously passed Ordinance No. 8748, which changed the county's master plan and permitted the first earthmover to begin its work on the trees, brush and earth that later was to be Princess Park Estates.
In Part III, The Signal examines what the County Engineer's Department, consulting geologist and developers knew about the hills before the first home was built.
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Slippery Homes, the Drive for Profit and Tragedy.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Monday, March 31, 1969.
This is the third in a four-part series on the circumstances — both geological and political — which led up to the tragic occurrences in Princess Park Estates last month. The concluding article will appear in The Signal's Wednesday edition.
Fifteen prehistoric landslides were known to exist in Princess Park Sierra Estates more than four months before the first housing unit was begun.
The discovery, which was noted in a private geological report dated Nov. 20, 1964, was brought to the attention of both the County Engineer's Department and the developer.
Despite the report, homes were allowed to be built on hillsides that later were to be called "suspicious" by Arthur G. Keene, the county's head engineering geologist.
County approval of subdivisions on the top of prehistoric landslides was nothing new. It had been done before in Portuguese Bend, Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains.
Contractors, subdividers and government adapted to the Los Angeles county environment nearly two decades ago and gave rise to the refined art of preconstruction "slide repair."
Earthmovers, shovels and man's desire for profit combined in efforts to beat physics and pacify unstable land by extracting chunks of dirt like a dentist pulls a tooth. Buttress retaining walls and compaction of dirt added additional backbone to the business of patching flaws in the topography of future housing tracts.
The practice, according to many geologists in Southern California universities and colleges, is "dangerous."
"You'd almost have to cut half the mountains down before they would be safe. The mountain slopes themselves are unstable," said Eugene A. Fritsche, associate professor of geology at San Fernando Valley State College.
Landslides, likened to a "spoon" by Keene, gradually eat at the contour of the hill over a lengthy period of time, funneling massive amounts of subterranean dirt from its "head," down the ever-narrowing portion to the "toe."
True landslides, in the eyes of a geologist, do not suddenly rip through a mountain, taking everything in sight to instant destruction.
Geological phenomenons of the instant destruction variety, called "slumps" or "slope failures," are attributable to erosion or errors in grading.
But the landslide is a breed unto itself, the creeping spoon that slowly devours everything built upon its path.
Landslides, Keene said, are divided into two simple categories — one "active" and the other "inactive."
Active slides have displayed motion within the period of recorded history while inactive or prehistoric landslides only show evidence of their ancient movement through geologic investigation.
The task of the developer's consulting geologist is to find landslides underneath brush and layers of earth, offering recommendations for corrective patchwork.
Inactive prehistoric landslides, many of them dating back 10,000 years, may be activated by removal of surface vegetation and alteration of a delicate equilibrium through placement of houses at the head, and the work of earthmovers at the toe.
All four factors, Keene said, were present on Christmas Day, 1967, when residents noticed a peculiar bulge in front of the home of policeman John B. Stanchfield at 19226 W. Abdale St. in Newhall.
Denuded hillsides, each acre capable of producing 100,000 cubic yards of mud, water and debris in a year's time, dominated the subdivision.
Sixteen inches of rain which poured into the ground last February provided lubricant that united the factors and ended in the destruction of three homes, damage to a fourth and the removal of three others.
Active landslides that threaten to gobble walls, chimneys, bedrooms, bathrooms and sidewalks with equality were not a new observance in Princess Park Sierra Estates on that Christmas Day.
Another landslide, only after threats of legal action by the County Engineer's Department and the district attorney's office, was halted before it reached homes at 19138 Friendly Valley Parkway, 19142 Friendly Valley Parkway and 19148 Friendly Valley Parkway in the same subdivision.
First noticed in February 1967, the landslide grew to a scar 60 feet high and 200 feet wide before county Supervising Civil Engineer Glenn E. Martin noted the "hazard to children playing in the area," ordering Princess Park Estates to remedy the crisis.
Today the Princess Park geologic score is:
Active landslides, 3.
Corrected active landslides, 1.
Active slope failures, 1.
Corrected slope failures, 2.
Rounding out the tally is blue-gray compression shale, a soil that expands like popcorn when watered. Fifty to 110 homes, depending on the source of information, have sustained damage ranging from minor cracks to buckled foundations.
Reluctantly at first, but with increasing frequency, county officials admit Princess Park is a geologic catastrophe.
"I wish we could wipe it off the tract map," said one high-ranking official in the County Engineer's Department.
Possibility of Princess Park Sierra Estates becoming a blemish in the history of Los Angeles County subdivisions was first hinted by Douglas R. Brown, the subdivision's original supervising consultant.
Brown, acting as an agent of the Moore and Taber engineering geology firm of Orange County, said in his final pre-grading report on November 20, 1964, that in Princess Park it was "not possible to completely anticipate all stability problems."
One of the unanticipated problems turned out to be the prehistoric landslide Brown or his subordinate, William J. Edgington, missed while excavating 37 pits for testing dynamics beneath the 375 acres that later was to become Princess Park.
Grading, Brown and Edgington said in their report, would require "heavy ripping," a condition adding danger to the possibility of disaster.
"Despite the complex geology, the units 1-6 can be effectively developed," stated the final report to Donald Malmone, supervising engineer for Princess Park Estates, Inc.
"Complex geology" includ[ed] the 15 plotted landslides, varying from 75 feet below the earth's surface to 40 feet above it; the expansive soils that grew at a rate of 18 per cent rather than the planned 9 per cent; and the undiscovered landslide that would move 100,000 cubic yards of dirt as if it was in an underground stream.
Only in a subsequent report by Moore and Taber geologist Dr. Martin L. Stout, a Cal State Los Angeles professor, was the landslide that was to spread destruction noted.
Construction in Princess Park was split into geographical areas, one unit being graded and developed before work crews would move onto another.
Unknown to geologists, the investigation of Dr. Stout turned up a new landslide, its head in an area about to be graded, but its toe in the area previously investigated by Brown and Edgington.
The area of the prior investigation already had been graded, building permits issued, and its houses were nearing completion, but still unoccupied.
Enlarging on his report, Dr. Stout graphed the suspected landslide, showing a displacement of nearly 30 feet between the existing ground level and that of previous centuries.
Copies of the report were distributed to the county engineer's geology specialists and to Princess Park engineer Gerald Carlot.
Building permits for houses at 19201 Beachgrove Court and 19207 Beachgrove Court were issued by the County Engineer's Department on May 19, 1966.
When Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Stevens moved into their house at 19203 Beachgrove Court and Mr. and Mrs. Louis G. Artes moved into their home in early 1967 they had no way to know the dangers existing underneath.
At the bottom of the hill, residents of Abdale Street had adapted to their new neighborhood, also unaware their homes were doomed.
Hillside homeowners are not told by salesmen of the geologic hazards present in a subdivision. There is no law requiring the purchaser of a lot to be informed of conditions that may cost a young family thousands of dollars in consultant's fees and grading expenses.
Salesmen in hillside subdivision de-emphasize the dangers of landslides, flooding and unusual soil conditions, according to county geologists.
Out-of-state home buyers are told landslides are a "myth," distorted out of reality by the press.
"It's up to him (the resident) to inform himself," Keene said.
Slowly, as workmen from the Southern California Gas Co., the Edison Co. and the Pacific Telephone Co. appeared in conjunction with cracks in sidewalks, walls and patios, the truth became known.
Individual families were informed by Regional Engineer Lindley Williamson in the summer of last year that a "slow" landslide may have been the cause of the damage.
But the geologists were unsure of what was happening. Despite the bursting of a water main on June 18, the specialists believed the bulging of Abdale Street was due to the popcorn-like soils rather than a landslide.
Meetings between consulting geologists, building and safety division officials and the developer had been delayed from May 28 to June 6 and finally to June 13. Meanwhile the landslide had been growing.
At the June 13 meeting were independent consultant Dr. F. Beach Leighton, Brown, Phil Bailey of Advanced Foundation Engineering, Don Shepardson of the Southern California Testing Laboratory; Glenn Martin, county supervising civil engineer; Al Schulte, the head of the county engineer's Newhall office; and Keene, the county geologist.
The bulge in Abdale Street, they agreed, "appears at this stage of the investigation to be unrelated" to land movements on Beachgrove Court and in the area of the prior Friendly Valley Parkway slide.
They suspected the bulge could be attributed to the popcorn-like expansive soils or a change in the underground springs beneath the entire development.
"Our geologist states that at this time no undue hazard exists," Coleman Jenkins, county building superintendent, wrote to his superiors on July 12.
But Arthur Shurtleff, an engineer for Princess Park Estates, was worried. He wanted to remove the additional weight of homes forcing the landslide onto property at the base of the hill.
The county balked, telling Shurtleff a geologist's report substantiating his opinions would be needed before a letter stating the homes were unsafe would be mailed.
The report was delayed and county officials would not approve the emergency measures to stop what they realized was a landslide of dangerous proportions.
Shurtleff ordered his crews on July 22 to begin inserting a lime slurry group into the ground to stop rocks from sliding on top of each other and water from seeping into the earth.
Pressurized grouting material on July 31 began appearing in bursting sewers along Beachgrove Court, and on the next day a water main broke, causing widespread alarm among residents.
All except one or two homeowners ordered the emergency crews from their property, reducing chances the landslide would be stopped.
Princess Park Estates had spent $40,000 to halt a landslide before emergency crews stopped their work.
Forced into a corner by both the county and the residents, Princess Park president Louis Feller reacted on September 23 in a letter to County Engineer John A. Lambie.
"We take strong exception to your letter of September 17, which serves no purpose other than to alarm the individuals and agencies interested in the problem, and without attempting to obtain the facts...," Feller stated.
"We advised you we would see this program through and you admitted we were one of the few developers who undertook to correct a condition such as this...," the letter continued.
"Good faith" on the part of Feller and his associates was acknowledged in a letter, dated October 15, that was sent to Supervisor Warren M. Dorn by Harvey T. Brandt, chief deputy of the department.
"The developers, a San Diego-based firm with the corporate name of Princess Park Estates, Inc., are actively engaged in attempting to solve these problems," Brandt wrote the supervisor.
"Recognized specialists," he said, "in geology and soil mechanics have been employed to make exhaustive studies of the extraordinary soil conditions and advise on appropriate remedies to be used in floor reconstruction and for permanently halting landslide movement."
"I feel that the developer has taken reasonable steps to correct the foundation and landslide conditions in arranging for top-notch professional advice. Full implementation of his technical consultant's recommendations should solve the problems besetting this development," he noted.
However, in the letter of September 17 to Feller from the County Engineer's Department, exactly the opposite was said.
"With the halt in corrective work short of the complete program recommended by the soils engineer, continued occupancy during the rainy season of the houses on lots 95 to 99, tract 30201, may expose the residents of the area to hazard."
Nothing was done to remove the principal contributing factors to the landslide — the houses on Beachgrove Court and the weight of dirt that had been installed to depths of about 30 feet on the top of the hill.
"I am alarmed by the continued movement, " Jenkins, the building superintendent, told Brandt in and inter-office memo.
County officials defended their failure to order immediate remedial measures by blaming "legal" restrictions.
Until a public road would become involved in the landslide, they said, there was no provision for legal action against the developer to force correction of the landslide.
Even then, according to Williamson, the regional engineer, the streets in question had not been accepted by the County Road Department as part of their jurisdiction.
But the see-saw hassle continued, the landslide grew to a length of 450 feet. The rains came. The houses were removed.
"Then it was too late, the thing was moving too fast to do much about it," Martin said.
The Official County Reply.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Monday, March 31, 1969.
County Engineer John A. Lambie, in reaction to landslides in Princess Park, has released a prepared statement giving his viewpoint on the matter.
The statement, released March 6, is as follows:
The Signal and everyone else concerned with the tragedy of the homeowners who've suffered from the landslide in Princess Park are asking a number of very reasonable questions. The four uppermost questions in everybody's mind appear to be these—
Why did it happen?
Who is responsible?
What will become of the victims?
How can hillside homeowners be protected from similar events in the future?
This landslide is an ancient geologic hazard undetected at the time the developer's geologist prepared a study of the proposed subdivision. The slide appears to have been activated by the rains of 1967-68 and accelerated by the January storms of this year.
Despite the efforts of the developer during the fall of 1968 to arrest the problem, the landslide continued at a slow rate until the last week of January, at which time it began to move very rapidly (increasing from a rate of one inch to several inches per day).
The families residing in the four homes most recently affected were informed at all times throughout the eight months my personnel have monitored the landslide that in the eventuality the hazard became aggravated it would be necessary to evacuate. Secondly, it was explained to them that as the owners of record, and therefore the only parties who could legally be required to alleviate a threat to public safety, they might be required to either repair or demolish these structures themselves. If this appears to be heartless on the part of the county, it is one of the tragedies of the limitation of powers granted to me by the laws to choose another course of action which would have protected the public safety.
Let me assure everyone who's watched this tragedy unfold — I am not heartless. Neither are my people who have been in almost constant touch with the victims. Only someone who is mentally deranged would derive pleasure from telling another person he's not only going to lose his home — but have to demolish it, as well.
But my people had absolutely no other course of action which would have protected the owners, bystanders or neighbors (including children) from being hurt, or possibly killed should one of those houses have collapsed on someone.
Now — who is responsible and what will become of these unfortunate people?
Part of the blame must be laid to the inadequacy of present laws. But which laws?
Los Angeles County's present grading ordinance was first enacted in 1957. It has been amended many times as soils and geologic engineering evolved to their presently rather advanced state.
Essentially, the county's grading laws require developers of hillside subdivisions to retain qualified soils and geologic engineers to investigate all surface and subsurface characteristics of proposed tracts to identify potentially hazardous conditions such as landslides. These experts recommend methods of removing or engineering the hazards so that "they are eliminated as threats to future homeowners. Experts on my staff review these reports and either approve the engineering methods proposed — or reject them and require revisions until we are satisfied they will be effective.
It is a matter of record that only about 30 out of approximately 120,000 lots processed under the county's grading ordinance have been affected by landslides. Sixteen of these are located in Princess Park. All of the landslides were undetected at the time the geologic studies were prepared. Only 13 of the 30 lots affected by landslides were occupied by buildings which have suffered physical damage. It is a fact that far more mud flows and landslides occur each year (in many cases, with damage to buildings) on undisturbed natural ground than in areas graded according to county regulations.
It is also a matter of record that the geologic report submitted by the Princess Park developer's consulting geologists did not show the existence of the landslide. No building permits would have been issued for the seven homes destroyed by this landslide if its presence had been known.
The logical question to ask at this point is, "Are the county's grading regulations strict enough?" I believe they are. The city of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles enforce the toughest grading and geologic regulations in the entire United States. The few landslides which have occurred bear me out.
However — I will concede the following point. As long as these regulations permit human error, and so long as no one is held responsible for the consequences of the error, tragedies will occur such as in Princess Park.
I do not believe it is possible to enact laws which will, in effect, outlaw the possibility of human error. Laws could be passed which would minimize the chances of errors happening. The county might require two, three or more independent geologic studies of each tract development.
The net effect of such regulations would be to stimulate a sharp increase in the cost of homes when such costs are already prohibitive. It must also be remembered that local government is subjected to considerable criticism for "over-regulation" of building activity. Ironically, this criticism comes during the dry months of the year when people are house-hunting, and not during some flood or other catastrophe in which damage occurs and losses result.
As for the victims, I'm afraid their only hope resides in the courts. The county is powerless to help them. Like everyone else who is sympathetic to their plight, I would like to believe that when all this is over they will be recompensed for their suffering and their losses.
As for future tragedies of this kind — my people are presently preparing recommendations for changes in the state laws which will protect home buyers from problems arising out of errors, incompetence or negligence on the part of the builders or their consultants. There are no provisions in many cases for such protection at present. I am advised that the county is legally unable to enact or enforce such regulations. Local authority appears to have been pre-empted in this field.
Los Angeles County will also lend its strong support to legislation presently before the California Legislature which would require insurance companies to provide coverage for hillside homeowners presently denied protection for losses from floods and landslides.
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Building Laws Must Change.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Wednesday, April 2, 1969.
This is the final installment of a four-part series on the circumstances that led up to the Princess Park Estates tragedy of last month. For editorial comment, see page 11.
Disastrous landslides with tolls in human life as well as property may become commonplace in Valencia Valley during the next decade unless county ordinances are drastically reformed.
A particular geologic condition, characterized by shifting granular soils and rocks, plagues much of the valley, according to Dr. Lorence G. Collins, chairman of the San Fernando Valley State College geology department.
Known as the Mint Canyon formation, the geological phenomenon is present in the north and eastern sections of the valley, and a similar phenomenon exists in parts of the planned Valencia development.
"The judgment utilized by geologists in the past indicates the code requirements are not sufficient for the Mint Canyon formation," said Arthur G. Keene, head engineering geologist for Los Angeles County.
Ordinances which allow slopes of a maximum 67 per cent grade may be safe for the rest of the county but are not safe in dealing with the Mint Canyon formation, Keene said.
Both William J. Edgington and Douglas R. Brown of the Moore and Taber engineering geology firm knew parts of Princess Park were in the Mint Canyon formation when they approved development plans.
Soils in the northern portion of the tract, their final pre-grading report pointed out, "vary widely from fine clay soils through sand and gravel bars."
Siltstones, shale, non-marine sandstones and mudstones were found in about two-thirds of the development, Edgington and Brown said.
"The siltstones are thin-bedded layers of silty shales, cherty shales and sandy to clayey siltstones of various reddish, tan or blue-gray shades which weather to shades from dark red-brown to light tan.
"They are generally incompetent, especially where exposed to deep weathering and large amounts of moisture. Most of the slippage in folds and landslides occurs in the silt-stones..." the report concluded.
A spot check of geologists in Southern California universities and colleges revealed most would not consider buying a home on property in the Mint Canyon formation.
Many said they would not accept a home in the Mint Canyon formation "if it was given to them."
Asked if he considered the parts of Valencia Valley in the Mint Canyon formation as reliable for building, Keene said:
"Well, I think we can use the recent evidence of Princess Park as showing this is a very suspicious geological formation when it comes to grading operations."
The evidence of Princess Park's insuitability for a housing tract that would require extensive grading operations came early.
Before daylight on September 11, 1965, an earthen temporary dam for use in development of Princess Park burst, sending a wall of water between two and three feet high onto a sleeping Friendly Valley.
Damage, which occurred in a 50-foot swath from the reservoir to the western flank of Friendly Valley, was estimated at $100,000. Sierra Highway was closed for four hours while bulldozers cleared the path for waiting automobiles.
The dam, 500 feet higher than Friendly Valley, had been constructed in soils either bordering on or within the Mint Canyon formation and had been filled beyond capacity.
Although county officials claimed the flood was because of excessive filling, the plan for another water storage area last July 3 was disapproved by the Engineer's Department. A notation on the denial stated, "a geologic report will be required."
Graders and bulldozers in 1965 pushed into unstable slopes on the northwestern edge of the tract, near Sierra Highway between N. Fairgate Avenue and N. Gilmet Drive.
County geologists who inspected the site declared it a "geological hazard area," thus requiring eventual residents to seek permits before construction of a swimming pool.
Despite the apparent laxity of county laws, they were sufficient to stop the expansion of 560 Princess Park homes into about 150 acres south of the route of the planned Antelope Valley Freeway.
The county's Engineering Geology Section in February 1965 forbade Princess Park Estates Inc. from beginning grading operations because of the high geological hazards, Keene said.
But the order did not affect construction between N. Oak Crossing Road, N. Fairgate Avenue and W. Point Arena Court, where another landslide was first observed last February 20.
Walls, porches and sidewalks creaked in the night's silence on Saturday, February 22 and Sunday, February 23. Movement as much as six inches was recorded over the weekend in the hillside above Fairgate Avenue.
Leo Williams, of 26456 N. Fairgate Ave., one of the homeowners affected, suffered a heart attack before apprehension reached its height on February 23.
"The way it looks it's a wonder why everybody doesn't have one," said Williams, who was hospitalized about two weeks.
Eleven homes are affected by the slide, which has caused relatively minor damage.
A separate earth movement was discovered early last July by Mrs. Ralph Darch, of 26325 Fairgate Ave., who had been suspicious of cracks in the hill, which she believed would endanger a planned swimming pool.
Glenn Margin, the county's supervising civil engineer, last July 19 requested the Moore and Taber firm to prepare a report concerning the landslide.
There was no communication between the county and the geologists until several weeks later when Brown replied:
"This is to let you know that we are working on a report in response to your inquiry regarding lot 196, tract 30394. The report should be completed and sent to you during the coming week,"
Not until last September 20 was the report received by the County Engineer's Department.
Warnings were sent by the department on October 30 to Mrs. Darch, Mr. and Mrs. Wieslaw J. Checinski of 26519 Fairgate Ave.; Gordon C. McCartney, 26331 Fairgate Ave.; Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Young of 19201 Maplebay Court; and Mrs. Vincent Lombardo of 19204 Beachgrove Court.
The geologic report, the county told residents, "indicates that unless precautionary measures are taken shallow seated slope failures could occur and it recommends procedures to be used to prevent such failures."
Recommended was the repair by residents of damaged storm drains, sealing of the hillside cracks with a lime substance, and the halting of lawn irrigation.
Brown on February 27 wrote the County Engineer's Department to report "the corrective measures recommended in our previous letter have not been performed.
"We felt strongly that these measures be completed as soon as possible in order to minimize possible failures of the slope. Since that letter, and as a result of the recent heavy rains, we observed that previous cracks have enlarged, new cracks have opened, and the northeast corner of the pad on the upper lot has dropped about six to eight inches.
"The terrace drains in this area are not functioning, and water is going into the ground behind the drains and into cracks in the ground.
"If no precautions are taken, it appears probable that a rather extensive portion of the slope will fall during any period of significant rainfall. Although there is no assurance that emergency measures will avoid failure, prevention of substantial quantities of water going into the cracks will be a substantial improvement favoring stability," Brown said.
Mrs. Darch moved. Other property owners discussed the danger, but nothing was done.
All of the geologic failures in Princess Park, according to Eugene A. Fritsche, associate professor of geology at San Fernando Valley State College, were partially caused by soils conditions related to the Mint Canyon formation.
Princess Park was the first subdivision to bear marked evidence throughout the development of phenomenon caused by the Mint Canyon formation.
But a substantial portion of Valencia Valley's estimated 1980 population of 239,000 persons will be living in subdivisions within the Mint Canyon formation.
Hints of the future, geologists believe, lie in the past.
— The 29000 block of N. Flowerpark Drive in the Pinetree development near Saugus last October 9 was hit by a landslide which briefly threatened six houses.
— A hill as granular as "sugar," in a section of the Valencia development under construction, partially eroded during recent rainstorms, according to Lindley Williamson, regional engineer for the county. "Until they get it planted, it's going to be a mess." Designs submitted to the Regional Planning Commission for a new unit near Hasley Canyon contain street grades greater than 12 per cent allowed under county ordinance.
— The 28100 block of Hot Springs Drive in Saugus was damaged by slippage in 1966. Six feet of the 15-foot back yard of a house at 28189 Hot Springs Drive fell to the canyon below.
— The rear yards of three houses below the Galaxy tract in Saugus were damaged by mud flowing from freshly graded hillsides in 1967.
— A small boat in the rear yard of Ray De Shong, 18902 Vicci St., was crushed by mud flowing from the hill above in November 1965.
While the debate over solutions to Valencia Valley's geologic problems continues, the Abdale-Beachgrove landslide in Princess Park moves toward a sixth house.
Late at night, when the noise of the traffic and children has subsided, Mr. and Mrs. James W. Whitlaw, of 19238 W. Abdale St., hear the slow, agonizing sounds of their porch cracking and the walls straining.
Click to enlarge.
Flat Heads And Sliding Hills.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Wednesday, April 2, 1969.
A grim story of sliding earth, cracking walls and sinking floors has been told by reporter Ken Gosting in a carefully researched four-part series which concludes in today's Signal.
The story is one of family tragedy, of business losses, of official hand-wringing. It includes not only the mud of the slides themselves but the mud of recrimination, confusion, and hate that surrounds such seemingly avoidable disasters.
As Gosting's survey made painfully evident, geology is not an exact science, and even when the best available talent puts forth its efforts to stop a slide, the mountains do not always obey their expert commands.
We would guess that the county will make their usual response to public outcry. They will pretend to Do Something. That something, quite predictably, will consist in further tightening up already oppressive subdivision restrictions, asking for further surveys (which may or may not prove anything), perhaps hiring a few more men to supplement the overworked county geologists, and maybe — though this is not very likely — requiring the assumption of financial responsibility by developers.
This solution will work splendidly until the next great rains.
To find a real solution, one must start at the beginnings. We can start with a basic question:
Why do people build or live on hills?
For builders, hillside land is cheaper to buy because it is more expensive to develop. Flat land eventually runs out. For homeowners, hill-dwelling is often a way of life which is necessary to them. It offers three things: a view, presumably; privacy, as a result of living on a different level than your neighbor; and individuality of terrain in which interesting gardens and other spaces can be developed.
Many of the tract-built hill homes in Valencia Valley have committed their hill-dwellers to all the inconveniences of slope-living with none of the above advantages.
Most of the hill homes in this area are built with the view available only from a bathroom window, and on flat lots consisting of one-half bedrock and the other half silt.
Thanks to the bulldozer, man discovered he could cheaply reshape the earth. Now the earth fights back every time it rains.
There are other solutions. Ancient houses — houses built before the bulldozer was developed — cling firmly to the sides of many southern California hills. What is needed are not more regulations, but a new beginning. The supervisors should turn to architectural engineers who have solved this problem, and perhaps develop a whole new way of looking at the hills.
The flat-headed concept of turning hills into a depressing, ugly series of flat pads has proved a dismal failure.
The time has come to use brains instead of bulldozers.
Geology (Cooksey 1934)
Geology (MacNeill 1947)
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Slippery Princess Homes: Anatomy of a Disaster 1968/69
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American Beauty Classics Construction 1986
American Beauty Landslides 1987
Cal Islands 1990s
Trestles Landslide 2019