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Three years later, San Pablo slide still not fixed

It's been three years since the San Pablo slide, and the hillside still isn't fixed.
May 2, 2014 12:00:00 AM PDT
A San Pablo resident is accusing city officials of keeping a secret, that wound up getting several homes red-tagged.

It's been three years since the San Pablo slide, and the hillside still isn't fixed. A deal to settle all the lawsuits and get the repairs done is ready to be signed, but one neighbor refuses -- he accuses city officials of a cover-up.

Joe Romey is fighting mad. He lives just above the San Pablo slide, but won't sign a deal to fix the hillside because it lets the city off the hook.

"They should step forward and accept their responsibility," Romey told Dan Noyes. "The history is there, the documentation is there."

The ordeal began March 25, 2011. Neighbors on Wyman Street woke up to see their yards falling away, and those living down the hill on Hillcrest Road watched the slow-motion slide send mud up to their homes, over the course of several weeks.

At the time, Peter Hewitt told ABC7 News, "There's nothing to stop the mud from overtaking our house."

Stunned residents moved out of their homes that inspectors ruled as unsafe.

Blanka Walker told ABC7 News, "I'm just sad, my house, actually our only house we ever had, just going down the hill and there's no way for me to stop it."

City officials held meetings, ostensibly to find ways to help. They offered to temporarily shore up the hillside, but couldn't find money to do it. Then, they applied for state and federal disaster aid. That also didn't work.

Kelsey Worthy, Assistant San Pablo City Manager, announced in May 2011, "We've got indications from the state and federal government that this is a private property situation and that funds will probably not be coming to fix the situation for the homeowners."

The homeowners were on their own, so the lawsuits started flying -- the downhill neighbors suing the uphill neighbors, the uphill suing the downhill; all of them going after the city.

"It's six houses in San Pablo, so it has to be a city problem," Leon Walker said in March 2011.

Romey happens to be a licensed land surveyor. He spotted something on the old maps -- a drain designed and approved by San Pablo's city engineer in 1955 -- to deal with a previous landslide.

The soil investigation report at the time said, "The purpose of the drain is to remove subsurface waters and prevent the build-up of water pressures in the compacted fills... and minimize the possibility of slides."

"They never disclosed that that drain system was there," Romey said. "They never inspected it, they never maintained it. They basically hid it, they tried to cover it up."

Romey says it was a bad design with open-joint pipes that allowed water to flow across the hillside. It took just three years after the drain was installed for another slide to claim a chunk of the hillside.

"In 1958, they knew it was a bad design when it blew out the hillside, they should have taken the rest of it out," Romey said. "They didn't. They left it there."

Romey blames the drainage system for two more slides later. The hillside has seen a total of four.

Noyes and Romey went over the slides on a map. "The old one, and then '58, and '83 and 2011," Romey said. "This one."

"I believe Joe is unfortunately just wrong," San Pablo's geologist Alan Kropp said.

Kropp is a long-time geologist hired by San Pablo to address the slide. He says the drain is not the issue, but the steep angle at which the developer graded the hillside in the 1950s and the poor quality of compacted fill material in the project.

"Given enough time and rain, after a while that rain and some landscape irrigation progressively weakens the ground," Kropp said. "And in a period of fairly heavy rain in the spring of 2011, it was time for that hill to start sliding."

That was enough to convince the lawyers in the various lawsuits. They agreed to dismiss the city of San Pablo as a defendant, and they've come up with a settlement: $900,000 from the neighbors' insurance policies to shore up the hillside and install a drainage system, some of the money will pay for repairs to homes damaged by the slide, and "the property owners are releasing any and all future claims" against the city.

That's why Romey refuses to sign. He's concerned about another slide in the future and about the city ducking responsibility.

"The city manager and the city attorney's priority number one is avoiding responsibility," Romey said. "And that's been their total focus. Public safety? Not a big deal. If this thing goes, well, it goes."

The city manager and city attorney did not return the I-Team's phone calls or emails, but they allowed their geologist, Alan Kropp, to go on camera and explain their position. If Romey doesn't agree to the deal -- and it appears he won't -- the case may be headed to a mandatory, binding arbitration next month.


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