A controversial county plan to build a regional sewer system in Malibu cleared a major hurdle this week when the Board of Supervisors unanimously authorized studies for the project.
In the strongest action taken by the county so far, the board Tuesday said it supports the proposal and invited opponents of the plan to argue their case at a public hearing April 11.
The board simultaneously approved boundaries for a proposed Malibu tax district that would bear the costs of the $35-million-plus system.
Supervisors ordered the county Department of Public Works to develop studies on the project's environmental impact, engineering, costs and feasibility, and on acquiring rights of way. The initial work is expected to cost the county about $1.2 million.
The plan is expected to draw fire from Malibu residents, many of whom fear that construction of a sewage system could lead to excessive development of the coastal area. Malibu voters have rejected sewer bond issues three times since 1966.
If the sewer project is ultimately adopted by the board and approved by the California Coastal Commission, it would serve homeowners in neighborhoods where land use of at least two units per acre is proposed, county officials said.
Landowners in areas ranging from near the Los Angeles city limits on the south to Broad Beach on the north would be assessed a special fee in addition to their property taxes. The five-member board could establish the assessment district with four votes, whether or not the majority of Malibu residents supported it.
Currently, Malibu residents rely upon private septic tanks and an aging, temporary sewage system. Septic tanks under beachfront homes were washed out by storms in 1983, sending bacteria into the water and polluting 12 miles of the coastline.
But Frank Basso, president of the Malibu Township Council, said that despite such problems many residents would like things to stay as they are.
"This is a county boondoggle," said Basso, who represents 1,000 homeowners. "The only problems we have in Malibu are where the county has allowed overbuilding. They've allowed 20 units per acre in some areas and it just doesn't work. We don't want to pay for those mistakes."
Basso said sewer problems should be solved on an individual basis. He argued that a costly regional sewer system would encourage increased commercial and residential development of Malibu.
"We are against it because it's immediate high-rises and car washes," agreed Cynthia Lindsay, a resident and owner of two beachfront homes. She said that although her septic tanks are sometimes troublesome, "I still prefer that to a sewer system. We are very very concerned about commercialization of this area."
Marty Cooper, president of the Malibu Road Property Owners Assn., said, however, that many Malibu residents have mixed feelings about a regional sewer system.
Too Expensive for Some
"It seems that some sort of sewering is necessary, but how do you do it?" Cooper said. "We have a lot of people who are retired and have owned their property for years who are not going to be able to pay for this."
In addition, he said, "we can't even keep the water mains from breaking along (the Pacific Coast Highway) where there are geology problems. So how are you going to keep a sewer main from breaking?"
Some residents said they would support a regional sewer system as long as Pepperdine University is required to be a part of it.
Pepperdine, which relies on its own sewer system, has been plagued with sewage problems for two years, and has unsuccessfully sought to expand its sewer system to proceed with expansion of its campus. The California Coastal Commission has turned down Pepperdine's proposal.
Pepperdine now stores treated sewage in two ponds on campus and disposes of it by spraying it on the lawns. Homeowners below the campus claim that the water drainage is contributing to geology problems and slides in the area.
"If they don't solve the Pepperdine problem, I don't see the point," said Margaret Levee, who owns two homes on the beach below the university.
"Pepperdine has brought in a tremendous amount of people, and without a proper sewer system their problems are just going to get worse."
Despite local concerns, county officials said, the board is optimistic that a regional sewer system will be approved.
Dennis Morefield, press deputy for Supervisor Deane Dana, said the board hopes to complete an environmental impact report on the proposal and receive state Coastal Commission approval of the plan by late 1986.
If the county's plan moves ahead without delay, Morefield said, a construction contract could be signed by May, 1988, and the system could be completed by May, 1990.
Morefield said reaction in Dana's office from Malibu residents "has been limited thus far. We haven't gotten many calls, but whether that will hold true in the next few days, I don't know. The project is just really now coming out in the open."
The county studies approved Tuesday will include recommendations on where to construct treatment plants, pumping stations and sewer mains to serve the entire unincorporated Malibu area.
Need Called 'Critical'
Last September, the county engineer's office called the need for sewers in Malibu "critical" because existing waste disposal methods were causing public health hazards. The engineers recommended a regional sewage plant at Corral Canyon or at Malibu Mesa near Pepperdine University.
The existing temporary system, made up of six small sewage plants built between 1963 and 1978, is plagued by operating problems and should be replaced, county officials said.
In addition, a county Department of Health Services study released last year found that broken septic tanks serving homes along the beach had discharged wastes directly into the ocean.