With slide, La Conchita lost its wager

LA CONCHITA, CALIF. — LA CONCHITA, Calif. - County officials say it was tough to reason with residents of La Conchita.

They were living under looming 600-foot cliff that slumped a decade ago and destroyed nine houses. And then there was the Model T Ford buried in someone's back yard that hinted at earlier cataclysmic events.


Signs posted by the county - "Enter at Your Own Risk" - after the 1995 disaster were torn down. Someone even defiantly spray-painted: "What slide?" on the collapsed roof of a house.

But many longtime residents bet that life at the beach was worth the danger, a gamble with nature that many Californians routinely take to one extent or another.


The wager was lost Monday when a slide killed at least six residents and left a dozen more missing under 30 feet of mud.

Now the question returns: Should La Conchita continue to exist?

"What's the balance between a person's right to use their property and the government's obligation to place restrictions on them for their own safety?" said Tom Berg, director of Ventura County's Resources Management Agency, which oversees land use. "It's a tough call."

For that matter, it's a tough call all over California, a state formed by earthquakes, wildfires and floods.

Nearly two dozen residents ignored strong pleas to leave even after the hillside collapsed Monday. And some who did evacuate are as eager as ever to resume their precarious existence below the muddy bluffs.

"I'm fighting for my home," said Roberta Ski, 50, who sat smoking a cigarette outside a Red Cross shelter in Ventura yesterday morning, and vowed to return home. "This is definitely my future."

County officials say there may be little they can do to stop her. After the 1995 slide, officials said legal protections made it hard to force the residents out, and in any case, too costly to do so.

The county, they said, could only watch as newcomers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for property that had plummeted in value after the slide.


La Conchita is a town built on ground the railroad flattened after a 1909 slide slammed into the Southern Pacific tracks and killed four people. The land was intended to be a buffer between an eroding cliff and the coastal plain.

But in 1924 it was subdivided. The narrow strip grew into a funky weekend retreat, and then a permanent home for many. In 1975, La Conchita Ranch Co. began operating a citrus and avocado farm on a plateau high above the community.

Angry residents blamed the ranch for the 1995 slide. In a series of lawsuits, they argued that irrigation of hundreds of acres of avocado and citrus orchards made the hillside unstable, and that the county should never have allowed it. A judge disagreed.

Residents and attorneys have renewed those accusations, even as the county and ranch owners pointed to a compelling geological record of repeated slides.

Jeffrey Hemphill, a University of California, Santa Barbara doctoral candidate who was part of La Conchita Ranch's legal team, said yesterday that more landslides there were inevitable.

"With the intensity of rain we have seen in the past week, this was certainly predictable," he said. "The whole area is built to slide."


Residents shocked by the deaths of well-known neighbors and the devastation watched yesterday as emergency workers scaled a mountain of rubble in what had been a placid community.

Many wondered what would become of a place they considered a haven - for surfers, fishermen, construction workers, retirees and free spirits.

"We all knew the mountain could come down," said Michael Farrow, who has lived here 10 years. "We were just praying it wouldn't. We were obviously in denial."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.