Chris Krach-Bastian’s plea would fall on deaf ears. “Please, please, please do not put my house in danger,” she implored the Santa Barbara City Council this Tuesday afternoon. The threat to which Krach-Bastian alluded was the proposed swimming pool approved by the Planning Commission earlier this year directly above her Hope Ranch home on the steep, unstable oceanfront hillside descending down from Sea Ledge Lane.
Krach-Bastian would get even less traction with the council — which unanimously rejected her appeal — than she did with the Planning Commission, which voted 5-1 to allow Jacques Habra — her upslope neighbor and self-described “start-up expert, thought-leader, and motivational speaker,” to build the pool and spa that he said would complete his 3,600-square-foot beachfront home. Based on the vast engineering expense Habra is willing to incur to build this pool, the field of thought-leading must be exceptionally lucrative.
Councilmember Bendy White marveled at the lengths to which Habra was going, stating, “Obviously the cost is not an object in this case.” Habra hired a team of geological engineers to equip his dream pool with five caissons — imagine huge nails pounded 40 feet into the ground — to stabilize the pool on what is admittedly slide-prone terrain.
The pool itself will be 350 square feet, 6 feet deep, and filled with salt water. Next to it will be a 50-square-foot spa. A new 1,300-square-foot deck will be built as well. In the process, 227 tons of soil will be moved and replaced with 206 tons of concrete, pool, and water. The pool bottom will be twice as thick as normal — and steel re-enforced — to safeguard against leakage. In addition to the five massive caissons, a French drain will be installed under the pool to handle any errant water in case of soil-destabilizing leaks.
The mantra of Habra’s team — also taken up by councilmembers and the one planning commissioner present — is that the slope will actually be more stable with the pool than it would be without it. Habra’s architect Peter Becker said that the Habra team planned to take 44 tons of weight off the top of the hillside and redistribute that pressure lower down. To drive the point home, Becker compared that tonnage to the weight of 43 Ford Excursions coupled with one Sherman tank, “fully loaded.”
Krach-Bastian regaled the council with tales of how her own home slid down the slope back in 1973 and how, in 1998, a big chunk of the property owned by Habra’s predecessors slid down the hill onto her land. The problem that gave rise to that slide was presumably fixed in 2000 when a 105-foot-long concrete retaining wall — also with caissons — was built on Habra’s land to stabilize the soil, as well as another retaining wall — 85 feet long.
In 2013, the hillside gave way again, this time near the entrance to Sea Edge Lane. That slide was caused by faulty repairs made to a power pole adjacent to the lane that allowed water to infiltrate the hillside and precipitate yet another slide. Ultimately, the repairs would cost Southern California Edison $250,000.
“I will not let a poorly engineered pool endanger my home,” Krach-Bastian declared. She also expressed incredulity that City Hall would approve the construction of a new pool in the middle of the worst drought in recorded history or that Habra would need a new pool given that he lives “three steps” from the ocean. She complained that Habra had maxed out the buildable area of his lot to such an extent that she now has difficulty navigating her truck past his bend in the very narrow private road.
“I think it’s extremely overkill,” she opined, “but that’s just my opinion.” If Habra’s plans are so fail-safe, she wondered why he wouldn’t agree to take out an insurance policy indemnifying her just in case something went wrong. His answer, she claimed, was that no insurance company would agree to such a policy.
Habra, who was present, did not respond, nor did he speak at all. His architect Peter Becker, however, noted that legendary slope stabilizer John Carter had “saved” Krach-Bastian’s home after her slide in 1973 and that Habra wanted to use the same technology on the pool that was used on her home then. Becker noted that as a young man, he had worked for Carter, digging holes deep into the ground. The work, he said, proved so profoundly exhausting that it inspired him to study architecture.
City Planning Commissioner Addison Thompson explained how he and fellow commissioners spent two-and-a-half hours deliberating over the soil stability of the pool. “It became obvious that the pool will make the bluff more stable than it is today.” While most councilmembers took pains to empathize with Krach-Bastian’s concerns — many saying they’d ask the same questions she is now — none could vote to uphold her appeal.
Councilmember Dale Francisco came the closest, commenting, “In my judgment, this seems a bad place for anyone to live.” He then said engineering efforts “would probably improve the site,” but added, “You never know with nature.” Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss gushed over Habra’s soil stabilization regime but expressed hope that Krach-Bastian’s fears had been allayed somewhat by what she’d heard.
“I hope everything we heard today is true,” she said. But she expressed doubt, citing the two six-inch-diameter plastic black pipes that are supposed to carry any water and mud offsite in the event of heavy storms. Those pipes, she said, were never engineered to handle the volume or flow generated by the increased development that is taking place in the area.
Habra’s geological engineer, when asked about this, punted, saying it was not a subject upon which he was fluent to comment. Habra’s land-use agent noted that the amount of flow contributed by Habra’s property would be reduced and that would reduce the volume those pipes might have to accommodate. No one explained why the pipes were not re-engineered as part of the project.