A decade-long legal fight over leaky water pipes critics complain are destroying historic adobe structures in the neighborhood just south of the Tucson Convention Center is going to cost the city almost $2.95 million.
A Pima County Superior Court awarded the money to the Rollings family on Friday — about two-thirds of it for actual property damage and the remainder for lost rental income. The $2.95 million, if it stands, is one of the largest ever against the city.
“This is such a vindication for the Rollings family,” said Rollings attorney Thabet Khalidi.
The four Rollings properties, on South Meyer and Convent avenues and West Simpson Street, were built between 1860 and 1885. They are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Family spokesman Donald Rollings said the one at 141-147 W. Simpson, built in 1885, is “one of the finest examples of a true Sonoran row house.” He said the one at 463 S. Meyer, which dates to 1860, was once owned by the pioneer Carrillo ranching family.
The Rollings’ legal battle with the city dates to 2002, when the family claimed the city failed to fix leaking waterlines, which caused the adobe buildings they own just south of the TCC to crumble.
City officials asserted that tests performed on the pipes in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood, around South Meyer and Convent avenues, didn’t reveal excessive leakage. Court records show the city either replaced or repaired the pipes next to the Rollings properties between 1995 and 2000.
The city has never denied the soil in the neighborhood contains an elevated level of moisture. However, it contends the source of that moisture is not from city water pipes.
In addition, the city claimed the damage to the adobe structures was mostly caused by natural erosion and the use of improper materials, which trapped moisture inside the walls and hastened the damage.
But Khalidi countered the city’s arguments with a parade of experts from hydrologists to adobe specialists.
In one instance, evidence was presented from a 2005 soil analysis performed at 363 S. Meyer Ave. The analysis detected an equivalent of two feet of water in the top eight feet of soil.
“There was no other explanation for that much water in the soil,” Khalidi said.
Khalidi said the main issue wasn’t whether the city’s pipes were gushing water, but was the water loss enough to cause the damage.
“Every place in the country has leaking pipes,” Khalidi said. “In 99 percent of cases, pipes leak and don’t cause problems.”
And that would have been the case if this had occurred in a typical area of the city, he said. The water would have innocuously seeped down into the earth without raising any eyebrows.
But the clay soil present in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood caused the water to run laterally, right into the Rollings’ vulnerable adobe homes, Khalidi said.
Khalidi said the city should have taken greater measures to protect some of the community’s oldest buildings.
City Attorney Mike Rankin said the city is reviewing issues that might be appealed and will decide on the next steps soon.
The Rollings filed their initial claims against the city in 1999, for damages to more than a dozen of their buildings.
“For our family, it’s been a long haul,” said Donald Rollings, whose family started buying the properties in 1971 as way to preserve a piece of Tucson history.
Rollings said his family never intended to go to court.
“We continued to try to work it out so we wouldn’t have to,” he said. “I’d rather be digging a ditch than have to sit in a courtroom.”
But the city wouldn’t agree to resolve the problem, so the family filed suit in 2002 for negligence, trespassing and nuisance charges.
The case went to trial in 2006, and a jury found in favor of the city.
But in 2007, the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the decision and ordered a retrial.
The city fought that decision all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court, which denied the city a hearing last January, sending the case back to Superior Court, where it went to trial Oct. 22.
This time, the family was seeking damages for only four of its properties. Previous court cases included more than a dozen properties.
“We just focused on the ones with the most damage,” Rollings said.
The trial ended Oct. 31. The jury reached its verdict the next day.
Rollings said he’s ready to move on so he can focus on restoring his properties that have been out of service for much of the last decade.
He hopes the city is ready, too.
“We’ll extend a hand to the city. I want to be friends,” Rollings said. “I don’t want to be an adversary anymore.”