Del Playa Drive residents on the edge of an eroding cliff – and eviction – have a new move-out deadline of Dec. 1 unless their landlords can submit data by Nov. 30 showing their blufftop properties are safe for habitation.
At an all-day hearing Thursday, lawyers for three Isla Vista property owners and for Santa Barbara County called nearly a dozen structural engineering and geology experts before a county planning department appeals board. Testifying under oath, the dueling expert witnesses explained their geotechnical reports regarding the structural integrity of concrete and steel caissons supporting the property at 6619 DP.
After nearly nine hours of proceedings, the appeals board agreed to extend the Oct. 22 eviction deadline given to 6619, 6701 and 6703 DP to Nov. 30 to allow time for property owners Lou Ventura, James Gelb and David Willows to submit additional geotechnical studies.
Under the board’s decision, if the owners do not submit new reports by Nov. 30 that comply with California state building code laws regarding structural assessments, the county will require tenants at those residences to vacate the buildings on Dec. 1. If the reports are submitted by the new deadline but deemed incomplete, the board will impose a new eviction date of Dec. 30.
While the board only heard testimony regarding 6619 DP on Thursday, the members applied the extended deadline to the other two properties as well. The hearing will continue on Oct. 19 so the board may hear the remaining testimony regarding 6701 and 6703 DP.
In addition to arguing that the eight DP buildings deemed unsafe by the county on Aug. 27 are structurally sound, lawyers for the property owners questioned why it took the county a month and a half to notify landlords that the buildings were unsafe after their yearly inspection on June 21.
“No action was taken at this time, no notice was given to the owners,” said Jeffery Speich, who represented the property owners at the hearing. “The evidence will establish that the [county’s] grave concerns were held to themselves.”
The county deemed the oceanside DP residences unsafe for habitation on Aug. 27 due to erosion that has exposed several of the caisson piles that support the structures. Tenants at 6741, 6743, 6745, 6747 and 6757 DP were evicted on Sept. 30, while owners of the remaining three properties at 6619, 6701 and 6703 DP won extensions, allowing their tenants to remain until the county renders a final opinion on the buildings’ structural integrity.
Speich said the first time his clients heard that the county considered their buildings dangerous was when notices were posted on their structures, giving tenants 30 days to move out. He said the late notice made it difficult for the property owners to hire experts to conduct their own geological surveys, as he was only able to present county lawyers with final copies of those surveys the day of the hearing.
“During the period of this notice there was a great deal of scrambling,” Speich said, “scrambling that continues to this day to get information.”
Speich said that once the property owners did submit the required geological and engineering data, county staff at the planning and development department told them it was not enough and only provided vague guidance when the owners asked specifically what studies they needed to submit.
“What we have here is a situation where the game was changed,” Speich said. “We are here to demonstrate unequivocally the safety of all the buildings.”
The county’s lawyers argued that the building inspector, Mike Zimmer, did what he was supposed to do in ordering the properties vacated. Engineers and geologists called by the county contradicted testimony by experts hired by the property owners that concluded the buildings were safe for the time being.
Robert Pride, a civil and geotechnical engineer hired by Zimmer, testified that the exposed caissons face lateral earth pressure that makes them more susceptible to fail in an earthquake.
“The piles were previously stable at the top, but pressure on the piles created a problem because of the loss of bedrock at the toe due to wave erosion,” Pride said. “The piles that are exposed today are having to withstand earth pressure they weren’t designed for.”
The experts hired by the property owners said their calculations suggested the buildings are not in imminent danger.
Michael Ishler, a structural engineer and architect, said the property at 6619 sits atop 37 caissons.
“This was built clearly in anticipation of erosion … and built to protect the building,” Ishler said. “[The building] will remain safe for the coming season and for many seasons beyond. It’s not at risk of imminent collapse.”
However, on cross-examination, Ishler admitted he did not perform all of the tests required by California state law because he said he felt such calculations – like additional soil samples – were superfluous, especially given strict time constraints imposed by the county to submit their reports.
Another civil engineer, Charles Grant, said he has studied the DP bluffs for the past three years.
“What is exposed [at 6619 DP] represents about 1 percent of the total amount of caisson that supports this structure,” Grant said.
Lou Ventura, of Oceanside Investments, which owns 6619 DP, said he and the other affected property owners plan to bombard the appeals board with the further engineering data the board has requested, providing them with more than they need to rule in favor of the property owners.
“We’re going to hit them with a shotgun and hopefully they won’t move the target again,” Ventura said.
Ventura said he blames Zimmer for the mess – and his huge legal and consulting fees – because the building inspector and county did not perform the needed tests themselves before they determined the buildings were unsafe and ordered their condemnation.
“We’ve written checks for well over $30,000 to $35,000,” Ventura said. “Today was no cheap day. And that’s our loss because Mike Zimmer didn’t do his job properly. He should be fired for how he’s gone about his job, along with a few other people.”
Ventura said despite the high cost, he wants to prove his building is safe.
“We’re glad they got the extension,” he said. “We will spare no cost. We’ll submit everything we can to get that order lifted.”
Thursday night, residents of 6701 DP said they were pleased with news of their reprieve.
We’re definitely glad we got another extension, but it’s frustrating that [the owners and the county] can’t figure it out yet,” said Sierra Anderson, a junior psychology major. “We haven’t had any security this year.”
Kelly Yoder, another resident at 6701 and a junior communication major, said she was relieved because she and her roommates had not made any arrangements to move despite the approaching deadline.
“We were definitely playing a little Russian roulette,” Yoder said.