April 2019

Groundwater hazard in homeowner's hands

By Andie King

Anaheim Hills homeowners may disagree about a proposed annual assessment of $923, but most all are in agreement that they were unaware of their inclusion in the Santiago Geological Hazard Abatement District (SGHAD). Residents in the 303 homes included on the SGHAD-area map have pored through title and escrow documents, noting that the information was not disclosed, whether they bought their home as recently as one year ago, or in the 70s. 

Homeowners in the SGHAD area were invited to vote on a $923 annual assessment at a March 28 community meeting. The vote was “no,” but it is not the end of the issue, as more people are made aware of the SGHAD and the potential for a landslide if the underlying water issue is not handled.

The SGHAD was originally formed in 1999, after the City of Anaheim was sued by homeowners after heavy rains caused a 25-acre landslide in 1993. The city settled for $15 million with the homeowners and hired Eberhart & Stone to create a system of underground wells to drain approximately 37,000 gallons water per day. The SGHAD was created to oversee maintenance of the wells, the first board appointed by the city, and $3.5 million was provided to maintain the wells.  And then it was forgotten.

Lost and found
The SGHAD gained visibility after residents Rick and Kaye Moyer got wind of it, and joined the SGHAD board. They questioned maintenance reports, located wells hidden by overgrown foliage, and found others weren't working because of silt and debris. Administrative costs have been slashed, ENGEO Inc. was hired to monitor and maintain the wells, transparency about the board, and information about the SGHAD and a need for an annual assessment have been disseminated. It was the ballot for an annual assessment of $923 per SGHAD residence that brought increased attention to it.

Residents report feeling “blind-sided” that information about a SGHAD was not disclosed in their home purchase documents. They question whether the SGHAD was properly recorded when it was first created, and are concerned that their properties will be devalued because of it. They also question the amount of the assessment, extrapolating that costs have averaged $100,000 - $150,000 per year. With $1.5 million remaining in the SGHAD, is the $923 figure a realistic amount? 

An ad hoc committee encouraged homeowners to vote “no” on the assessment, gather information and strategize on the best, and most cost-efficient, next steps. Residents question the amount of the current assessment, as well as future amounts; the same assessment amount for homes with small lots, and those with lots four times the size. They also question the city, for allowing further developments, as well as the four homeowners associations that should have realized the wells on common property were their responsibility.  

After years of  benign neglect, the current board determined that the SGHAD is now in catch-up mode, and must refurbish and replace the non-functional wells. 

The onus is on them
Craig Schill moved to Window Hill one year ago, applied for the fifth open seat on the SGHAD board, and was voted in during the March 28 meeting. As a seasoned facilities manager, Schill hopes to be a “part of the solution,” bringing his expertise in preventative and predictive maintenances to the table.

To add to the complexity, some homeowners “mysteriously” do not have their street included in the SGHAD. “I think they [the city] forgot about us,” resident Chuck Cucunato says. He has battled water three times since moving into his Rutgers residence in 1979. Most recently, in January, he pumped out 2,200 gallons of water seeping into his first floor in just 17 hours. It ruined flooring, furniture and a brick fireplace, none of which was covered by insurance. He has contacted city and water officials, had them out to look at the property, but has had no help. The city told him there were wells near his home, but the map shows the nearest wells to be over a block away. 

“There are three factions in this fight,” Cucunato advises.  “Homeowners who are affected and care; homeowners who are not affected and don’t care; and homeowners who are affected but don’t care enough to pay the assessment.”  Cucanato installed a sump pump himself, hoping that will solve the problem of “living over a lake.”