Darnell Johnson climbs out of the gully that threatens to undermine his City Heights condo.
  • Darnell Johnson climbs out of the gully that threatens to undermine his City Heights condo.
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In March 2005, Darnell Johnson bought a one-bedroom condominium on a quiet, dead-end street in City Heights. He never imagined he’d be forced to fork out $50,000 to keep his home from falling into the canyon it overlooks. The erosion that jeopardizes his building is a problem for which he believes the City of San Diego is at least partially responsible.

Civil engineer Pat Rymer and Darnell Johnson stand with a neighbor near the curb inlet.

The problem, Johnson says, begins with a curb inlet at the top of Lantana Drive. The inlet feeds into a City pipe that carries neighborhood water to a gully behind the complex. From the mouth of the pipe, the water flows down a steep hillside approximately 275 yards before it meets the concrete storm-water channel at the bottom of the canyon. The free-flow is cutting further and further into the bank behind and below one of the two buildings in the 14-unit condominium complex.

Back in January 2007, soon after the Condo Lantana homeowners association discovered that the 18-inch pipe lay in a City drainage easement, they sent a letter to their city councilmember, Jim Madaffer.

“…based upon the fact that a permanent connection [between the drainpipe outlet and the concrete channel] has not been established,” the letter read, “excessive storm water breaches the Storm Drain Easement, causing significant erosion…[and] jeopardizing the structural integrity of the buildings…”

On February 27, 2007, Mark Hosford, the Public Works superintendent, responded to the association by way of a letter that read, “Based on the available information, our conclusion is, the storm drain pipe and 10ʹ of riprap is the City of San Diego’s responsibility to maintain. Anything outside this area is private and therefore the responsibility of the property owner. The erosion downstream of this system is the property owner’s responsibility to control.”

It was a letter that seemed to both accept and deny responsibility. And it worked. The homeowners took the doublespeak to mean they were on their own.

“We took this as being it,” Johnson says, holding up the letter from Hosford. “It’s an official letter…in response to our boardmember. So, after that, we’ve just been trying to save every dime that we can.”

The association decided their best option was to purchase, install, and bury a series of pipes that would guide the water all the way down to the storm-water channel — a project they believed the City had left unfinished. In the past five years, they have raised the monthly fees twice, once by $10, and then by $20, in order to cover the large expense that controlling the water flow would incur. Today, the eight one-bedroom unit owners pay $140 per month, and the six two-bedroom unit owners pay $150.

“It’s going to cost us about $50,000, $40,000, [according to] the estimates I’m getting now, which is, like, 80 percent of our savings,” Johnson says. “It’s a huge project to undertake. That’s why everybody sort of avoided it, doing only cosmetic jobs instead of doing this. But, now, the structural integrity’s a problem.”

Recently, in revisiting the issue, Johnson and the other homeowners have returned to their original conclusion: the City should pay for the project. But, they no longer have the time to take it through official channels. They plan to go ahead with the project and hire a lawyer who will help them get some of the money back from the City.

Last month, they asked civil engineer Pat Rymer for a proposal to create a design for erosion damage repair and new storm-water drainage structures. On an early Monday morning in March, Rymer meets me in the Condo Lantana parking lot to share his initial assessment.

“There’s a regular curb inlet up top there,” he says, pointing toward the upper part of Lantana Drive. “It drains a fairly big area, so there’s a lot of potential flow.”

Then he steps off into a patch of weeds and pushes aside a branch from an unruly bush that hides the City’s pipe.

“It discharges right here. So this is the City’s contribution,” he says.

Then he leads me back into the parking lot, walks several yards, and points to a grate at our feet. “This is the only drain right here that drains the parking lot here and it goes down to that little pipe that’s exposed here.” He points to a long black pipe that juts out over the gully. “The condo’s contribution is that little four-inch pipe, so there’s a huge difference as to whose water this is.”

Across the gully, probably 15 feet from where we stand, the roots of bushes dangle over a section where the hillside has eroded.

“Basically, what we’ve got is a pretty serious erosion problem,” he says, pointing to the hillside. “The water has eroded underneath the plant life enough so that the roots can’t hold it together.”

This section of the hillside is uphill from the complex’s drainpipe.

When I ask about the ten feet of riprap — stones or chunks of concrete layered on an embankment slope to prevent erosion — that the Public Works superintendent’s letter claims as the City’s responsibility, he says, “If there is any riprap down there, it’s either buried and it’s not functioning or it’s just not there. There’s no evidence of it.”

Before he’s completed his research, Rymer can’t be certain whether the City can be held responsible legally for the erosion. Based on his experience, however, he says, “It’s not usually the responsibility of adjacent private property owners to maintain the City facilities.”

Even so, Rymer doesn’t think it’s a good idea for the association to wait for the City to claim responsibility.

“My experience with the City is, basically, they exist in a state of denial. You say, ‘Hey, we need to fix this,’ and they go, ‘No, we don’t.’ If you’re willing to go to the effort to prove they have to do it, they’ll go, ‘Hey, you were right.’”

On March 29, Daniel Lettermoser, a civil engineer for the City of San Diego, visited the property and met with Johnson. According to Johnson, Lettermoser said that in his initial research he did not find a record of the easement mentioned in the letter from the superintendent of Public Works. He said that he would dig further and request that a city geologist verify the immediate risk to the condo buildings.

But, Pat Rymer says that the homeowners will be lucky to “squeeze by” to the end of the rainy season. As for recouping the money from the City after the job is done, Rymer has his bets on a lawsuit.

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