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Old House in Jeopardy for 100-year Pipeline

The corner where the water district intends to base its biggest construction project.

A long empty house may get demolished to make way for a private tunnel to the beach for workers to access a sewage pipeline as a first step in a $50-million, six-year sewer renovation project expected to start by next September. 

South Coast Water District asked for city approval this week to bulldoze the 1928 cottage at Fourth Street and S. Coast Highway so that it can dig a shaft under the highway to renovate a dilapidating 57-year-old tunnel and replace two-miles of sewer pipe running inside the ocean bluffs.

The tunnel renovation and sewage-pipe replacement project is the district’s biggest and most expensive capital improvements project in its 78-year history, one unblemished by sewage spills or tunnel-related worker injuries, said water district spokeswoman Linda Homscheid.

It will be primarily paid for by 30-year bonds as well as district reserve funds.  Customer rates, which will cover debt-service payments, may also be affected, Homscheid said.


Though the tunnel services the entire South Laguna area, some of the 214 oceanfront property owners between Three Arch Bay and Aliso Beach whose homes perch above the sewer tunnel disprove of the project. They are unwilling to sell five feet of their below ground property to allow the water district to increase the height of the underground tunnel and provide more elbow-room for workers, according to Eric Jesson, chairman of a liaison committee between Laguna Beach’s water district and South Coast Water District. 

Although easement purchases are still being negotiated, if litigation takes place, the district would exercise eminent domain, added Joe McDivitt, the water district’s director of operations.

“Generally speaking, everybody recognizes the calamity that would occur if that pipe failed and we would have no ability to shut off that sewage; there’s no big wheel to turn,” said Jessen. “It would just flow out into the ocean and destroy the economy of Laguna Beach overnight.”

Not enlarging the tunnel, he said, “would cause havoc to our world-class, tourist-destination resort.” 

Moving the tunnel under Coast Highway was an option proposed by property owners, but the personal expense of a $240,000 connecting pipeline from each lot discouraged them from pursuing that alternative, Jesson said.

The access shaft planned for the abandoned-house property will tunnel under S. Coast Highway and the parking lot at Laguna Lido condominiums and allow district employees to repair and enlarge the existing tunnel and install a new pipeline that runs 50 feet under beach bluffs.   Miners and other work crews will be lowered into the shaft daily and remain underground for the duration of the workday, according to Homscheid.

The new tunnel as well as access portals and work sites at Thousand Steps, Camel Point and Aliso State Beach will be used to reinforce the existing tunnel and to remove loose rock, rotten timber and debris. With no street access available at Thousand Steps, ocean barges will be used.

The existing sewer pipeline was installed in 1974 and is the only one in Southern California encased in a tunnel, Homescheid said. It will be abandoned but left in place for emergency use and the two pipelines will be separated by a concrete floor, according to district plans.

The boarded-up beach house and shed were owned by Phyllis Arnold and remained unoccupied for years.  Arnold, who also owns the Pottery Barn in North Laguna, said she sold her family’s South Laguna property to the water district last year; the district verified the price at $797,000.

“The water district can keep the house, fix it and use it as a construction office,” suggested South Laguna resident and historic preservation proponent Ann Christoph.  Construction companies use trailers as offices on building sites, she pointed out. “This is a $50-million project.  Rehabilitating this little house is peanuts.”

The purpose of the project is to “prevent a tunnel collapse, sewer pipeline failure and worker injury or death,” according to a district report. The pipe flows downhill with gravity and uses no electricity, carrying 1 million gallons of sewage daily from north Dana Point, where most of the waste originates, and South Laguna to the pump station going to the Coastal Treatment Plant in Aliso Canyon.

While construction noise is a constant refrain throughout Laguna and the district plans mitigating measures, disruptions for residents and beachgoers and travel time for motorists cannot be completely obviated, water district officials concede.

“We’ll be on the beach, but not exactly on sand,” said Homscheid, describing fencing planned to hide heavy equipment on the beach at Thousand Steps, Fourth Street, Camel Point and Aliso State Beach, for six to 12 months at a time. “It will start within the next 18 months,” she said, “and the tunnel should last 100 years.” 

Cranes, jack hammers, work crews, trucks, security lights, temporary fencing and noise-barrier walls will become common fixtures.  The water district concedes that construction during the six-year project will also significantly impede the esthetics of the neighborhood.

The district has agreed to use colors and materials that blend as well as possible with the surroundings, lower cranes when not in use and shield night floodlights.  No night construction is planned.  A telephone hotline number for questions and complaints will be posted at each work site and calls will be responded to within 24 hours.

The district has will also repair road surfaces if damaged, turn off emission-producing equipment when not in use, use electric- or diesel-powered equipment to lower emissions where possible, replace trees and landscaping that are removed, limit work hours to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays only, stop construction for a week surrounding national holidays as well as work around the mating seasons of grunion and snowy plover shorebirds.  Mailings about the upcoming six-year event went out to residents within 1,000 feet of the project, according to reports.

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