SACRAMENTO — Despite strong objections from Los Angeles County, the state Senate has approved a bill that could hamper the county's plan to build a controversial sewer system in Malibu.
The measure, carried by Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), won passage Thursday and was sent to the Assembly on a 21-14 vote--the exact majority required for passage.
During the lively floor debate, supporters portrayed it as a modest measure to give Malibu residents a voice in whether the $60-million sewer system is built. Opponents branded the legislation a no-growth proposal that could harm public health.
The county Health Services Department has stated that failed septic systems along Malibu beaches are a public hazard. To deal with the problem, the Board of Supervisors plans to build sewers and require residents--who have voted against the proposal three times--to pay for them.
Hart's bill seeks to revamp this procedure. Hart, whose district includes Malibu, said in floor debate: "All this bill says is that before you can levy very substantial fees on people to build this sewer, you have to have some finding as to the public health problems."
Hart proposes that county officials spell out the details of the health risk and the types of illness that might be spread by inadequate sewage disposal. Further, if a sewer is built, the Hart bill seeks to limit the cost to residents.
"If there is a legitimate health problem," Hart said "then a sewer ought to correct the health problem, but it shouldn't do more than that."
Hart estimates that the sewers could cost between $20,000 and $30,000 per property owner. In contrast, Clancy Leland, a lobbyist for the county, projected the sewer cost at closer to $11,000 per property owner.
In the floor debate, Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim) argued that Hart's legislation could stop the sewer plan by requiring health findings that may be impossible to obtain.
Further, he said, the bill could trigger "time-consuming and costly legislation that could place the issue . . . in the courts for at least another five or 10 years."
Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), a supporter of the bill who once represented Malibu, said the central issue is growth in Malibu.
"What the local residents feel," he said, " . . . is that maybe developers would like to come into Malibu and ruin paradise and bring everyone and his brother in. And you can't do that without sewers . . . and really that's what it's all about."
Hart's bill would affect communities throughout the state where local government seeks to build sewers over the public's objections, even though it was prompted by the Malibu sewer dispute.
In March, 1983, severe storms sent powerful waves crashing into Malibu's shoreline, washing out 239 septic systems. Raw sewage spilled onto the sand, leading to the closure of 12 miles of Malibu beachfront for 2 1/2 months.
In April, 1985, county Director of Health Services Robert C. Gates, in a four-page letter, told the supervisors that sewers are critically needed to protect the health of area residents and visitors "who may use this recreation area without knowing of the substandard sewage disposal facilities common in Malibu."
The sewer proposal has sparked spirited opposition from the Malibu Township Council, a civic group representing 1,000 families.
After Thursday's vote, Leon Cooper, the council's president, said the group plans to continue to lobby for the bill in the Assembly because "we don't know how much it (the sewer) costs, or have data on the health problems."
The county's environmental impact report on the sewer project is expected to be completed this summer.
Meantime, the bill will be considered by the Assembly, where Hart predicted another close vote.
"The more difficult question," he said, "is what the governor will do."