Sewer Project Blocked by a Lone Hold-Out


Five more feet of easement is all South Coast Water District needs to begin its massive pipeline replacement and tunnel improvement project under the ocean bluffs of South Laguna, according to Andrew Brunhart, the district’s general manager.

South coast Water District's tunnel.
South coast Water District’s tunnel.

A closed meeting was to be held Thursday to determine if the final easements will be seized for public necessity through condemnation and eminent domain, a rare practice for government entities.

Lester C. Smull, 81, is trustee of the family trust that owns the waterfront property at 90 S. La Senda Drive in Three Arch Bay. He is the last hold-out to grant easement rights on his property, said Brunhart. The district has acquired 194 of 196 subterranean easements needed from property owners for the tunnel upgrade.

Smull, a former director at Downey Savings and Loan Association, was unable to be reached for comment. Jeffrey Oderman, Smull’s attorney, informed the water district that the family objects to the acquisition of two easements on the Smull property, according to the district’s report.

The water district offered Smull $175,000 to buy two easements that would allow the district to continue to raise the sewer pipeline tunnel five feet along its two-mile length and realign the portion under the Smull property, according to Joe McDivitt, the water district’s project manager and chief operations officer. The two easements on the Smull land needed for the project are 60 feet and 80 feet below ground. The amount offered is the fair market value, and could change during eminent domain negotiations, McDivitt said.

Smull had rejected the offer earlier, the only property owner who still refused to sell, said Brunhart.

District officials were scheduled to ask the board of directors if they wanted to condemn the property needed to move ahead with the $50-million, five-year pipeline and tunnel project through Dana Point and Laguna Beach at a meeting Thursday at Dana Point City Hall. The sewer pipeline project was expected to begin in 2013 with permitting, financing and negotiations extending the start date, said McDivitt.

Smull is the only property owner to take his objection this far, said Brunhart. Some other property owners also objected, but after negotiations and explanations, easement agreements were reached over the other 194 easements, he said. The district already owns a tunnel easement underneath the Smull property through previous purchase and eminent domain procedures in 1953 and 1954, according to the report.

Most of the already purchased easements were mutually agreed upon by the property owners and the district, said Brunhart. Others were with property owners who questioned the proposed value and with cities and government agencies, such as Caltrans, which required extensive technical information, McDivitt said.

The district set aside $1.5 million to purchase easements and, so far, has spent $1.3 million, said McDivitt. An easement is a legally determined right to use someone else’s property for a specified purpose.

The sewer pipeline tunnel runs two miles under the coastal bluffs and parallel to Coast Highway in Laguna Beach and Dana Point. The water district also serves San Juan Capistrano. The pipeline flows by gravity 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.

Plans call for realigning the 200 feet of tunnel under Smull’s property away from the bluff face, McDivitt said. This will reduce potential impact to the existing tunnel from future landslides, according to the report.

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  1. I find your assertion that local governments “rarely” engage in condemnation or eminent domain proceedings absolutely ludicrous. As a former resident of Southern California for over 35 years, I watched the various cities in Orange County invoke eminent domain on, what seemed like, a monthly basis. As a matter of fact, when Donald Brin acquired the Irvine Company, the infamous California Coastal Commission held the land west od PCH in what is now Newport Coast hostage. They explained to Brin that they would NOT allow building permits on any of the lands that were the Pacific-facing hills until he sold them all of the land west of PCH to them for an absurdly low price. In the long run, Brin sold the land for an estimated $90 million while it was worth at least four times that amount. By the way, the easement for the section of PCH that runs from southern Huntington Beach south to San Clemente was originally granted by James Irvine himself in the 1910’s.


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