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Esplanade Apartment Owners Look for Bailout

By Joshua Melvin, San Mateo County Times, June 17

The owners of the apartment buildings perched on a crumbling Coastside cliff may have found a way to come up with the money to keep their structures safe from demolition and, for a time, Mother Nature. The owners on Esplanade Avenue are looking at using a little-known state rule that allows communities threatened by landslides, earthquakes or other geologic catastrophes to set up a collective that can apply for federal and state money but, more importantly, can raise cash by selling bonds, officials and owners said Thursday. That money could be used for the multimillion-dollar project to bolster the cliff, erosion of which forced the evacuation of the buildings at 320 and 330 Esplanade. The decision to have residents leave came because city officials and engineers could no longer guarantee their safety after massive chunks of the bluff disappeared into the Pacific Ocean. In both cases, renters had to find new lodging in a hurry, though some had anticipated the problems and chosen to leave. This may be the last and best hope for the owners, who have struggled to come to an agreement on and find the money for a long-term fix to erosion that is eating away the ground beneath the apartments. The emergence of this new possibility, known as a Geologic Hazard Abatement District, comes as options dwindle and time runs out. On Thursday, the city of Pacifica gave Millard Tong, the owner of buildings at 310 and 320 Esplanade, an extra 30 days to come up with a plan to save his apartments at 320 Esplanade, which have sat vacant since being evacuated in April, said Pacifica building official Doug Rider. The city had set a June 17 deadline for Tong to come up with a plan but granted an extension because he is working to secure financing through his insurance company, Rider said. The city is pushing for quick action on the structures in an effort to avoid having derelict buildings that could attract trouble. In addition to doubts about whether the Esplanade Avenue bluff, which is essentially compressed sand, can be permanently shored up, there are also questions over the challenges of bringing all the owners together. An abatement district must be authorized by 10 percent of property owners within its boundaries, and all owners within it have to a pay an annual charge, according to the California Association of Geologic Hazard Districts. That money goes to improvements or to repay bonds. Farshid Samsami, who owns 330 Esplanade, said a coalition of his neighbors support the idea. The process of founding the district has begun and could be complete in three to six months. "If we can get this going quickly enough, I think all the neighbors and all the buildings can be saved," he said. "I'm very, very, very positive about this." The district is a rare bright spot in the saga of the crumbling cliffs, which has already resulted in one lawsuit. The company working to buttress the cliffs, Engineered Soil Repairs, is suing Tong, accusing him of not paying $1.8 million in construction bills. The company installed boulders at the foot of the cliff to keep heavy surf and tides from tearing away more of the bluff. Tong's representative, Mike Jones, said he has not seen the lawsuit and can't comment on it. But, he added, "The plaintiff would be well served to engage the best legal counsel that they can."

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