Two Del Playa Drive buildings, vacated under orders by the county building inspector on Sept. 30, will remain empty until at least next summer after yesterday’s meeting of the SB County Planning Dept. Appeals Board.
In its second all-day meeting, continued from Oct. 14, the appeals board scrutinized dozens of photographs dating from the early 1980s showing the effects of erosion on the bluff line supporting 6745 and 6747 DP. Engineers and geologists testified to the significance of the pictures, focusing on problems identified by county building inspectors, including exposed foundations and corroding caisson support pillars.
After over ten hours of testimony and presentations, the appeals board ruled that the lawyers for the owner of the two properties, David Willows, had not produced sufficient evidence that the residences are safe to be inhabited. The board ruled that Willows has until Nov. 13 to submit repair plans for both properties. If the county approves his plans by Dec. 30, he will have until June 30, 2005 to renovate, move or demolish the existing structures.
Under cross-examination by county lawyers, Willows admitted he had been notified by county building inspectors as early as July of 2000 that he needed to make structural repairs to his property, but that the county denied his building permits to make such repairs.
“This is kind of a catch-22,” Willows said. “I need to get a permit for that stuff, and I try to but [the county denies] me.”
Willows testified he did not have adequate time to comply with the county’s demands before his properties were ordered vacated.
“They told me I had to install a fence, and I had it installed four days before the tenants had to vacate,” Willows said. “If I can’t have the time, it’s impossible to do, but I had the fence built on Sept. 24. They called me back and said, ‘You need a geo-technical report,’ but I didn’t have enough time and my tenants had to move out.”
James Gelb, another property owner whose tenants at 6741 and 6743 DP were evicted on Sept. 30, said Tuesday he would file no further appeals for those two structures.
“My intent is to take them in from the bluff,” Gelb said. “We’ll take [the buildings] back 30 feet, which should give them a shelf life of another 35 to 40 years.”
Gelb said the new distance between the edge of his buildings and the edge of the cliff will be the same distance it was in 1968.
However, Gelb said he will vigorously defend the other property he owns, 6701 DP, which his hired team of engineers and geologists have told him is safe.
As imposed at last week’s appeals hearing, Gelb has until Nov. 30 to submit more geo-technical studies proving his experts’ contentions that the building is inhabitable, or his tenants at that property may also have to move out. Property owned by Lou Ventura at 6619 DP and property owned by Willows at 6703 DP is also subject to the same Nov. 30 deadline.
Michael Ishler, a structural engineer and architect retained by several property owners, testified at the hearing that his main concern for 6745 and 6747 DP is that their decks are not actually attached to the buildings. Despite this, he said he thinks the buildings are safe for people to live in for the time being.
“This deck is built independently of the building. It is actually set away from the building,” Ishler said. “It is my professional opinion that the structural capacity of the deck is substantially intact. Both the deck and the building remain safe for occupation.”
The county’s decision to evict the tenants of the residences was made in haste, Ishler said, as the eviction notice was not in response to any sort of emergency situation.
“This warning of imminent danger is usually associated with some type of event – an earthquake, a snowstorm or a landslide,” Ishler said. “Usually in these projects the time frame is minutes, hours [or] days, when there’s no question that there is a danger. Our time frame here is years. We have seen no evidence that these buildings are in danger presently.”
County geologist Brian Baca gave a presentation underscoring the inevitability of further erosion affecting the Isla Vista bluff.
“Essentially the beach and the bluff erode landward together,” Baca said. “One thousand years from now it will be in the middle of the community of Isla Vista.”
A key element in the final ruling for the residences will be the retreat rate of the properties because the county has taken such care to document the bluff erosion in the past 20 years, Baca said. According to his report, the bluffs at 6745 and 6747 retreated .76 ft. and .66 ft. respectively in the period from 1967 to 1994.
“This is the best retreat rate information we have. There’s no other place in the county where we have this kind of density of information,” Baca said. “The average retreat rate is around one foot per year, but the retreat is episodic and can occur at up to nine feet at once after a large storm or seismic event.”
This kind of episodic retreat is one of the county’s major concerns for the DP residences, Baca said, especially at 6757 where a large cave has formed behind the caissons in just the past year.
One of the recommendations Ishler made in his reports on the two properties is sealing any cracks in the caissons with epoxy to prevent further weathering and rusting of the metal rebar that’s encased in the concrete pillars. However, Baca said the coastal zoning ordinance prohibits such repair work except in the case of oil pipelines, drainage structures and beach access stairways. Repairs to existing support structures are not permitted under the current zoning ordinance.