Repairs Require a Gift of Dirt Below Ground

An engineer evaluates seep in a sewage tunnel under Three Arch Bay.

The water district in South Laguna needs five feet of land below ground to repair a sewage tunnel buried in the ocean bluffs, but some ocean-side property owners aren’t showing signs of cooperating.

Instead, last week South Coast Water District exercised eminent domain, where government can seize private property, on the first seven of 30 homeowners who are refusing or ignoring requests for property easements along the tunnel’s two-mile route in South Laguna.  The additional easement is needed to safely bolster the dilapidated, unlined tunnel hand-mined in 1954. The five-year, $50 million project is scheduled to begin next year, a district spokeswoman said.

The water district already acquired underground easements on 136 of 180 privately owned parcels for $642,000 since January 2011. The last group sold easements at prices ranging from $3,000 to $20,000. Nine needed easements are on public land.

Condemning the individual easements will not preclude the district from continuing to negotiate with the property owners to come to agreeable terms, SCWD spokesperson Linda Homscheid said.

The needed easements are 30 to 50 feet below the surface.  “People own the property that’s underneath their houses, I found out, to the center of the earth,” said Homscheid.  “When you add the five feet for the easement, you’re talking about 25 to 45 feet underneath the home.”

The water district, said Homscheid, has set aside $1.5 million, including legal costs, to acquire the easements from the remaining property owners who haven’t agreed because the district hasn’t been able to reach them through various methods or they aren’t happy with the offer or the circumstances.  Attempts by the Indy to reach the property owners subject to the eminent domain proceedings earlier this week hit dead-ends; contacts by email or telephone remained unanswered.  Property rights subject to eminent domain include air, water and land.

Homscheid said 20 more easements are expected to be acquired cooperatively, with the remaining parcels subject to eminent domain seizure.

A district report says the easements are necessary to shore up the existing tunnel around the sewage pipe. The pipe carries a million gallons of sewage that flows through gravitational force downhill from north Dana Point through South Laguna to Aliso Creek, where a pump station propels untreated effluent uphill to the Coastal Treatment Plant in Aliso Canyon.

According to district reports, the tunnel is in disrepair due to age. “It’s caving in because the wood that was propping it up on the ceiling is coming down; it’s caving in because the sidewalls are coming through the beams; it’s coming down because it was not lined when it was made in 1954. It was supported by beams,” explained Homscheid.  “By stabilizing the interior of the tunnel, it also stabilizes the bluffs.  It’s a good thing for us and it’s a good thing for the flow.”

The district plans to cut the tunnel back to stable rock, enlarging it to a horseshoe shape rather than the narrow diameter now surrounding the pipe, which, according to reports, makes it difficult and dangerous to repair.  The district said the five-foot easement is the maximum required for repairs, which may take as little as a half-foot to accommodate.  Concrete will then be poured to line the inside of the tunnel and reinforcements made.  “It’s going to make the tunnel stronger within the bluffs,” explained  Homscheid.  “If the tunnel were to continue to cave in, it would first and foremost put our maintenance workers at risk and then it would also put, very importantly, the pipeline at risk that’s in there.”

According to district records, the first properties and owners that will be issued eminent domain notices for are:

32175-31277 Coast Highway, Villicana; 108 S. La Senda Drive, Anderson-Schoepe;  31899 Circle Dr., Tanner and Boyd; 31895 Circle Dr.,  Tobie Mazzie, Jr., Trust; 31871 Circle Dr., Cipolla; 1801 Coast Highway, Kobeco; and 31595 Table Rock Drive, Pelle.


Photos courtesy of South Coast Water District



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