Several residents and the nearly bankrupt owner of an apartment building have filed an appeal against the city of Pacifica for ordering the premises to be evacuated after heavy storms eroded parts of the coastal bluffs along Esplanade Avenue.
Various parts of the city have taken a beating from El Niño this winter and the 20-unit apartment building at 310 Esplanade Ave. was yellow-tagged with its several dozen residents forced to leave Jan. 25.
City officials contend they’ve done their best to keep the low-income residents apprised of the severity of the erosion and were acting to protect public health and safety. But the property owner, who is also responsible for a neighboring apartment building that was condemned several years ago after the bluffs it sat atop were significantly compromised, wants a second opinion.
It’s an unfortunate circumstance with which the city became familiar when it condemned the apartments at 320 Esplanade Ave. in 2010 — shortly after owner Millard Tong bought the properties for $6 million in 2006, said resident Bart Willoughby.
Now, Tong is filing for bankruptcy and appears to be unable to afford the cost of demolishing the properties with the city of Pacifica considering how to come up with the funds.
On the advice of his attorney, Tong said he couldn’t comment.
Willoughby, a coastal analyst who was hired by Tong and lived at the property for nearly nine years, said they believe the city may have unnecessarily condemned the building before it was time. Willoughby said it took several years after 320 Esplanade Ave. was red-tagged before it was truly at risk and unsafe for people to occupy and the low-income residents at 310 Esplanade Ave. could have had more time.
Willoughby said he hasn’t seen hard evidence from the city’s hired geotechnician proving the apartments were at risk.
He also contends a shocking drone video that went viral after being published on YouTube shows only a portion of the cliff falling to the ocean primarily below the already shuttered 320 Esplanade Ave. Willoughby said he believes just a few units at 310 could have been vacated while allowing the others to remain.
The appeal claims Tong should have been given time to have a second opinion and an engineering professor from the University of California at Berkeley recently visited and stated he thought the bluffs were not in imminent danger.
“The city basically doesn’t have the authority to do that (yellow-tag the premises) until they give Millard Tong notice that they believe there is a problem. But to unilaterally, without any rebuttal or to allow Tong to bring in another geotech with the same experience and take a look at this and make a decision, I think the city is wrong and it’s what they call an illegal condemnation,” Willoughby said.
Now, the city’s Emergency Preparedness and Safety Commission will host a hearing on the appeal Feb. 17.
City Manager Lorie Tinfow said the city regularly gave residents and Tong warning they may be required to evacuate and this year’s harsh winter storms were so impactful, the property will likely need to eventually be demolished.
“We’ve been watching that property for years. … In January, when we saw the storms were hitting us very hard, we ramped that up and started visiting the property daily. We called and made contact with all of the tenants several weeks before we actually yellow-tagged it,” Tinfow said. “Staff was out there twice a day including the weekends, because we were so worried about how fast it was deteriorating.”
Tinfow said Tong has had the ability since after the storms in 2010 to reinforce the cliffs edge with riprap, as several neighboring property owners have done. Because Tong failed to protect the building and neglecting the property at 320 Esplanade Ave., Tinfow said the city was prompted to file charges against him — he’s now facing 20 misdemeanor counts.
Willoughby said Tong has been dealt an unfortunate blow having his investment in the properties been rendered nearly valueless since the city deemed the apartments uninhabitable. Several residents have signed on to the appeal and Willoughby said he doubts the city’s hired geotechnician was able to access critical parts of the property to perform a full inspection.
Still, Willoughby said he’d accept the property is unsafe if provided hard evidence.
Tinfow said the city has hired an expert consultant who advised the property, which sits just a few feet from the cliff’s edge, was at risk. Furthermore, there are broader safety concerns in permitting the properties to remain and the city has received an estimate that it would cost $400,000 to demolish the property. Another building at 330 Esplanade Ave. is owned by another company, which has already agreed to pay for it to be torn down. Unfortunately, it appears the city may have to find the funds to tear down Tong’s buildings, Tinfow said.
Without elaborating on what the city’s expert found, Tinfow said she’s confident officials made the right call by erring on the side of caution and is sympathetic to the residents who had to abandon their homes.
“We’ve been relying on our expert. … We’re erring on the side of, one, giving folks a chance to get their belongings out and then two, protecting the public safety,” Tinfow said. “While we know it must have felt very sudden for the tenants, we really were making sure we did everything we could to make that transition happen and we understand the adjustment was difficult.”
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