"If the pipeline ruptures, it takes 18 to 36 hours to repair because we do not have access," said Michael Dunbar, general manager of South Coast Water District. "It would be a catastrophic disaster.
Dunbar said the tunnel poses a threat to district workers as well as the environment.
"We are in the process of rehabilitating the integrity of the tunnel and pipeline," Dunbar said. "It is the largest project in the district's history. It goes under some of the most beautiful real estate on Planet Earth."
District consultants advised officials that the whole Fourth Avenue site was needed for the project, including the 300 square feet occupied by the cottage.
The Design Review Board had previously approved demolition of other structures on the site but opposed removal of the cottage, 4 to 0.
Demolition of the cottage was also opposed by the Heritage Committee and some South Laguna residents on the grounds that it contributes to the ambience of South Laguna and could be useful during the reconstruction of the tunnel.
"The water district could use it for a construction office, staging, restrooms, etc. during the five-year construction period," said former Mayor Ann Christoph, who submitted a drawing of how the structure could look. "A nice place for the workers to have lunch, and for the community to enjoy."
South Laguna resident Gayle Waite said she dreads seeing a construction site for five years when the cottage could be made into an attractive representation of her community.
The cottage contributes to the fabric of the neighborhood, according to Carl Ivorson, architect and Heritage Committee member.
"It is part of South Laguna," Ivorson said.
However, reviews by the water district and city historic consultants concluded the cottage has no historical significance.
"I can't believe we are even here," said Mayor Pro Tem Jane Egly, annoyed by the decisions that blocked the demolition, in light of the danger to the environment and to district employees who work in the tunnel.
"On one hand we have an enormous project, and on the other hand we have a little shack, vacant for 30 or 40 years that nobody cared about and not on a pretty lot," she said. "The Heritage Committee was wrong. The Design Review Board was wrong."
Mayor Toni Iseman, who voted with Councilwoman Verna Rollinger against the demolition, said she was concerned about the people who will be living with a construction project for five years. She opined that preserving the cottage might have been a neighborly gesture on the part of the district and threw down the gauntlet.
"I challenge the water district to meet with me and neighbors to make the project as painless as possible," Iseman said.