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CLIFFHANGER: The bluff over Chestnut Street has been eroding for years, resulting in this overhang and other problems.

Slip-Slidin' Away

Neighbors watch their property erode while the city dithers over long- vs. short-term fixes

By Alastair Bland

WHEN Jayne Dudfield noticed the hillside directly behind her home beginning to erode, she informed the city of Santa Cruz, but to no avail. That was almost 40 years ago, according to records supplied by residents currently living above the hillside, and still the bluff over Chestnut Street—created in 1961 as part of a city engineering project that cut away a steep hill to create a sheer cliff in its place—continues to crumble away. And still the Santa Cruz Public Works Department has failed to stanch the erosion.

Through the 1970s and 1980s Dudfield fruitlessly urged the city to take action. Today, Jim and Donna Hagler live above the "Chestnut Street cut" in the home once occupied by Dudfield, Donna Hagler's late mother, and the pair has continued the fight she never won. To date, the erosion has cut inward several feet and created an overhang large enough to provide shelter for homeless campers and truant teens, who neighbors say have periodically occupied the space. The erosion also poses a potential threat to two properties at the top of the bluff, including that of the Haglers, who declined to go on the record for this story.

Mayor Mike Rotkin acknowledges that the city's own actions sparked the erosion of the hillside.

"The city has liability because we cut that street out in the 1960s," he says. "We undercut their homes, and there's no doubt if something happened to those homes we would get sued for damages and we'd lose. The issue is not whether we'll solve the problem somehow. The issue is how we can do it."

Cost, says Rotkin, is the only barrier to conducting a job that will fully satisfy the residents of the two impacted properties, who want the entire hillside reinforced.

Sean Wilson, who bought the house next door to the Haglers' in 2002, says he first told the city in 2004 that a retaining wall should be built to hold back the sliding earth just yards behind his home.

But according to Chris Schneiter, assistant director of the department of public works, such a fix would cost between $700,000 and $800,000—money not available in the city's general fund.

"The $800,000 option just isn't realistic," says Schneiter, adding that the city's budget for stopping the hillside's erosion currently stands at $300,000. "The homeowners want the whole hill retained. There just isn't funding for that."

Schneiter explains that the city's preferred alternative for halting the sliding of the slope is to create a stable "angle of repose" by removing as much as 10 feet from the top of the cliff to slow or stop erosion beneath the homes. At the same time it would build a partial retaining wall beneath the sloped pedestrian walkway that connects Chestnut Street to the top of the terrace above. Such an approach would cost roughly $300,000. Schneiter says the city could begin work as early as the fall.

Wilson says he and his neighbors have heard similar assurances for years. "That's been the story since we moved here," says Wilson. "They've never said anything committal."

It's not like the city has done nothing. It's addressed the matter in bits and pieces. Department of Public Works associate engineer Chris Chang says the city has spent roughly $50,000 since 2006 maintaining the crumbling cliff. Debris removal, tree removal and subsurface soil surveying have contributed to the costs, which in the past year alone have added up to $30,000.

Wilson, however, believes such a long-term approach of "nickel-and-diming" the problem could incur greater expenses than if the city simply builds a full retaining wall under the entire cliff sooner rather later.

Although documents show that limited conversation between Jayne Dudfield and the city of Santa Cruz began in 1971, Rotkin, who has served 26 years on the city council since 1979, says he first heard about the situation just two months ago through an exchange with Donna Hagler. He promises that the matter is finally on the road to resolution.

"The issue is now in front of [the city council] in a way that it hasn't been since at least 1979," says Rotkin. "We're going to get this done, and the less expensive it is, the sooner we can do it."

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