By Joe Tash
A local couple is suing the city of Solana Beach and the Santa Fe Irrigation District for at least $1 million, claiming leakage from the agencies’ water and sewer pipelines has saturated their vacant 2.6-acre property in Rancho Santa Fe and made it undevelopable.
Brad and Debra Gessner bought the property on Rancho Serena Road in 2007, and planned to build a home on it with views of the nearby San Elijo Lagoon. But when they began grading the property, they found water seeping from the freshly cut earth. Later, when they tried to install retaining walls and drains to remove the water, the hillside collapsed from being oversaturated with moisture.
The couple hired a hydrologist who tested the water and found high levels of fecal coliform bacteria and other chemicals used to treat drinking water. In a report provided by Gessner, hydrologist Cathrene Glick wrote, “It remains our opinion that the groundwater contamination detected is originating from a sanitary sewage line, storm drain line, or reclaimed water supply located at the top of the ridge above the project site.”
The Gessners’ lot sits below four cul-de-sacs located in the city of Solana Beach. Gessner said maintenance records obtained from the city show numerous locations where roots and debris were found inside the sewage line, indicating breaches, and that the pipeline has at least one section exhibiting heavy cracks.
“There’s only one source that the sewage on my lot could be coming from, and that’s the city of Solana Beach’s upslope development,” said Gessner.
As for the irrigation district, Gessner said a pipeline owned by the agency runs across his property, and he contends the underground trench containing the pipeline acts as a conduit to bring the sewage from the properties above. He said the pipeline may also be leaking, since tests showed some portion of the water on his property was treated drinking water.
Both agencies denied claims filed by the couple. “We have no recourse” other than the lawsuit, which was filed in 2009, said Gessner. “We invested our life savings in this property where we had hoped to build our dream home.”
Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner, when contacted by a reporter, said, “We have no comment because it’s open litigation.” The city’s attorney, Steven Boehmer, did not return phone messages by presstime.
Neal Meyers, the attorney for the irrigation district, said the fecal coliform found in the water could have come from animals, rather than sewage. In any event, he said the district’s water line conveys only treated drinking water, which contains no human or animal bacteria. The district’s investigation determined the line doesn’t leak, he said, and test holes dug into the bed of the trench reveal no moisture.
Landscape irrigation of the large lawns above the Gessners’ property is a much more likely source of the saturation, Meyers said.
“There’s no water in the trench, there’s nothing wrong with our facilities,” said Meyers.
“The logical source of water is from years of irrigation from the uphill mesa, it’s that simple. I think the Gessners made some poor decisions in buying that property, which a lot of people passed on before them, and they’re trying to find someone else to blame.
“I would be sympathetic, but they are suing my client and it’s costing ratepayers, that’s unfortunate. They should look to themselves,” Meyers said.
Gessner, who is general manager for the San Diego Convention Center Corp., said he has a lot of experience overseeing major construction projects during his career, and that he and his wife have also built a home before in the Del Dios area.
He said he thoroughly investigated the property, and relied on an expert’s report that said the groundwater problem could be managed by building the retaining walls and drains.
The couple has since bought a home in Olivenhain, and are looking toward the trial on their lawsuit, which is now set for July.
Brad Gessner said his goal is to recoup the approximately $1 million he and his wife spent to buy and try to develop the property.
“I would like for those who have harmed me to make me whole, buy my property and fix the problems they have caused,” he said.