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Former Sycamore Canyon Landslide Repair Foundation Attorney Sued

Residents, lawyer battle over accounting for $50 million slide repair, $18 million settlement

While many Sycamore Canyon residents remember the winter of 2005 and the heavy rains and massive landslide that closed parts of Sycamore Canyon Road, few involved in the legal battles that followed are saying much about it now.

A lawsuit was filed after the slide, which slumped across the roadway near the intersections of Highways 144 and 192 — an area of steep, relatively unstable topography running along the boundary of Montecito and Santa Barbara on the backside of the Riviera. The original suit centered around a 1998 landslide repair that a group of residents maintained had been insufficient to prevent the 2005 incident.

A dispute over payment with the group’s legal counsel, David Casselman of Tarzana, led to further litigation, and opening statements in the case began Tuesday afternoon before Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle.

The group of residents — which originally called itself the Sycamore Canyon Landslide Relief Co. and has since become the Landslide Relief Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation — contends Casselman made off with $875,000 taken from the $50 million landslide repair and nearly $18 million in settlement money Caltrans had agreed to pay in 2005.

“We’re here today ... to compel Mr. Casselman and the Wasserman, [Comden & Casselman] firm to return the money that wasn’t theirs to begin with,” said Mark Jameson, LRF’s attorney.

The devil appeared to be in the details, however, as accounting reports from the two sides painted starkly contrasting pictures. Casselman, represented by Peter Ezzell of Los Angeles-based Haight Brown & Bonesteel, countered that almost all of the $875,000 had gone as an advance to Cotton, Shires & Associates, which had performed a geotechnical study of the slide area. Ezzell pointed out that his client had hoped to extract payment from money left over from the repair project, but barring that, had expected those involved in the Caltrans settlement to shoulder the financial burden.

“This is one of the largest settlements in the history of Santa Barbara County, and certainly one of the largest settlements in the history of Caltrans,” said Ezzell, who also accused retired District Attorney Tom Sneddon — one of the residents involved in the settlement — of accepting a $2.2 million payment from Caltrans despite the fact that he is still living in his house on Canon View Road above the slide area.

Sneddon, who was in the courtroom Tuesday, was unable to comment on the allegation because of his involvement in the current legal proceedings.

In 1998, the Disaster News Network reported that the option of a municipality buying properties in areas near the site of the 1998 slide — located in roughly the same place as the 2005 slide — had been explored, but that the city of Santa Barbara had elected to reject federal funding for that purpose.

The case is scheduled to resume Friday morning.

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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