Robert Price

Friday, Feb 10 2006 01:39 PM

Let's hope it's not a landslide decision

By Robert Price

The day before the Bakersfield Planning Commission was scheduled to hear public comment on the city's hillside ordinance, there was this noteworthy coincidence: A hillside in a Southern California coastal town came tumbling down, bringing more than a dozen homes with it.

It happened Wednesday in Bluebird Canyon, in the town of Laguna Beach. Just before 7 a.m., the ground made its intentions known, creaking and moaning in ways not normally associated with late-spring mornings.

Power poles started coming down, trees vanishing. Homes collapsed like cakes removed too soon from the oven.

And somehow everyone got out. Some 50 homes were damaged or destroyed in all, but only a few people hurt -- unlike January's landslide in the Ventura County coastal burg of La Conchita, where hillside homes disappeared and 10 people died.

The bluffs of northeast Bakersfield are nowhere near the coast, where climate and geology no doubt play a huge role in surface stability.

But hop the fence and take a stroll along the ridge overlooking Rio Bravo and Kern Canyon. The bluffs, which might one day have hundreds of homes, are creased and pocked with innumerable rivulets and ravines.

It's the weathered, wrinkled face of a land in motion, a piece of Bakersfield susceptible to the whims of wind and water like few others.

General Holding Inc., or the developer that the Sacramento company eventually sells to, will build homes on those 890 acres one day. Where, how many, and with what sort of respect for the land's unique topography are some of the questions that still need to be answered.

The loudest and most persuasive arguments we've heard about General Holding's latest proposal to build on its plateau above Hart Park involve private property rights versus a city's obligation to weigh a durable, reasonable building standard that considers the common good.

We've heard from recreationists who helped hammer out what they thought was a shared vision with the developer, only to see that vision for hiking trails and meaningful access given a weak nod.

And we've heard from the developer's representatives. The statement that resounded loudest was their decision to lock off the land from cyclists, runners and others despite having agreed to put an open-use component in the plan.

What we haven't heard enough about -- prior to Thursday night's hearing, anyway -- is the long-term stability of that land and the likely effects of "cut and fill." Lop the top off a ridge crafted by natural erosion, use the displaced earth to fill a crevice formed the same way. How long before the earth undoes the work of the earthmovers?

What we haven't heard enough about -- prior to Thursday night's hearing, anyway -- is the effect of homes and roads and people on that land, particularly along the ridgeline, where the largest, most expensive homes would undoubtedly be built.

We need to hear about all that.

And then we need to ask ourselves if giving up development rights along that ridgeline -- aesthetic considerations be damned -- is worth the risk of one day seeing ourselves on the national nightly news.

Just another California disaster to the rest of the world, but the symbol of a blown opportunity to the people involved in the debate here today.

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