Kite Hill residents picket builder
DISPUTE: The Laguna Niguel homeowners, upset that they were not warned about unstable soil, protest at a new tract nearby.
June 14, 1998
By Joseph J. Nelson
The Orange County Register
LAGUNA NIGUEL — A portion of a new hillside
housing tract opened Saturday as sign-carrying,
chanting protesters issued a warning to prospective
homebuyers: Check the soil reports and grading
records before opening escrow.
Five Kite Hill homeowners who are suing their
developer alleging defective construction and fraud
picketed before the entry gates of the builder's nearby
Hillcrest Estates project. They complained of cracked
walls and shifting earth that have plagued them for
"I really wish someone had warned us about soils
conditions at Kite Hill before we bought our homes,"
said protester Joan Leeb.
Leeb, along with her four Chat Drive neighbors, says
they found out too late that the hillside on which their
homes were built was unstable and reinforced in 1985
before the homes were built.
Now, they say, the hillside isn't holding up. Walls and
swimming pools are cracking, concrete pylons are
ripping away from divider walls and back yards have
dropped up to a foot in some places over the past two
The same developer, S&S Construction, is building the Hillcrest homes, priced at $500,000 and up, on land that geotechnical reports indicate is an ancient landslide site.
Christine Herdman, an attorney for S&S
Construction, said the developer has responded to the
Kite Hill homeowners' complaints and made several
repairs to each of the homes.
"It is not our practice to get into lawsuits with our
customers, and we have a history of where we have
gone out and (performed) repairs on homes after the
10-year statute of limitations ran out," Herdman said.
Herdman added that the developer had offered to
install caissons under Roy and Ann Brown's home,
which has suffered the most cracking, and to buy the
house at fair market value.
The Browns said they declined the offer by S&S to
install the caissons after they were told by the
developer that a report on a geological inspection done
by an S&S contractor wasn't available. Herdman said
reports can't always be provided immediately upon
"How are you supposed to make a decision of that
magnitude when they don't even have a report to
provide you?" Roy Brown said.
On the advice of their attorney, Serge Tomassian, the
five homeowners hired their own geotechnical expert,
David Lee, who drilled a hole 75 feet deep into the
back yard of Steve and Sue Guenther's home. Lee
concluded that a clay seam 40 feet below the surface
was contributing to the slope's instability.
"I'm not saying the hillside could or might slide," Lee
said. "I'm saying that there will be a landslide at some
point in time in that area."
"There is agreement that movement exists on the
slope," she said, "but there is a fundamental
disagreement between our geotechnical experts and
the homebuyers' geotechnical experts over the severity
of the movement."
Geotechnical experts for S&S Construction were
unavailable for comment.
Two years ago, the homeowners sued S&S
Construction, alleging construction defects. In April,
they amended their case to include fraud, contending
the developer was aware of the slope problems and
should have warned them.
"My clients want a complete and correct repair that
will last," Tomassian said. "We don't want to be
reading on the front pages about this hillside collapsing
a year from now."
Herdman said all slope instability problems on Chat
Drive were corrected by graders before the homes
were built. The company had no legal obligation to
disclose the area's geological history to homeowners.
"I think it is far-reaching at this point to say that these
homes are imperiled," she said. "The conditions of
distress vary in each home, and we believe the matter
requires further investigation."
The five homes sit side by side on an area of hillside
that was determined to be unstable in a 1984 report by
Leighton & Associates, a geotechnical consultant hired
by the builder. The firm also was the consultant on
the Hillcrest Estates project.
The hillside was buttressed, which entails cutting away
a portion of the hillside and then recompacting the soil
back into the cut for reinforcement.
As drivers stopped to ask the protesters questions and
received fliers, others shopped the new homes inside
Hillcrest Estates is showcasing 18 homes this week. A
lottery will be conducted, and the winners who are
approved for the homes will be announced Saturday.
The development ultimately will have 185 homes.
Scott and Samantha Spearman, who came to Hillcrest
to shop for homes with their infant daughter, said that
they were surprised by the picketing.
"Honestly, it wasn't even on my mind today until I
drove in here," Scott Spearman said, referring to the
soils reports and ancient landslide areas within the
development. "Seeing these picketers at a new
development raises a red flag with me, and I'll look
more carefully into buying a house up here."
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