Malibu resident Carl Randall said he received notice this week that he may be forced to sell his beachside home of 21 years and abandon this coastal community.
The notice arrived in the form of a $12,874 assessment for a proposed sewer system in Malibu that Randall and many other residents do not want and say they cannot afford. For Randall and other sewer opponents, the bills represent the frustrating reality that their lengthy battle against a regional sewer system may soon be over.
"I'll have to seriously consider moving out," said Randall, 68, a retired construction worker. "I'm not poor because I own a very valuable piece of property, but I'm not sure I can make mortgage payments and also pay for a sewer system and a hook-up and still afford to live here. The bills just keep going up."
Jump in Cost
The estimated cost of the huge sewer system has jumped to nearly $87 million, about $22 million more than the price predicted by the county consultant for the project two months ago.
Los Angeles County planners blame the rising cost on increased expenses for land acquisition, but the price tag scares homeowners like Randall, who believe that the estimate is still too low and could send their bills skyrocketing. County officials concede that further assessments could be forthcoming and that the bills do not include the price of maintenance or individual hook-ups to the system, which could run as high as $15,000 per landowner.
As expected, the assessments have triggered a wave of resentment among many of the 2,600 Malibu property owners who received their notices during the past week.
The Malibu Township Council, a civic group representing about 1,000 families, is opposed to the sewer system because its members, including Randall, believe the system is too costly and could damage the already unstable hillsides in the canyons above Malibu.
They say the traffic-choked Pacific Coast Highway will just get worse when sewer construction starts and opens the coast to development that will forever change the character of Malibu.
However, most difficult for sewer opponents is that they feel powerless to stop construction after turning back three previous attempts to build a central system in Malibu.
The county can build the system without voter approval because it declared the community's septic systems a health hazard in 1985.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the proposed sewer system at a public hearing Oct. 22. If the board and the California Coastal Commission approve it, construction is scheduled to begin in two years. The first phase of the system, which would extend from Topanga Canyon to the west end of Malibu Road, would be completed by the end of 1991, according to county planners.
"This thing is robbing our bank account," said Anna Hutchinson, a resident of Malibu for 26 years. "Our right to vote has been taken away and we're being forced to pay for something that we don't need. It's like having a gun put to your head and having your money taken."
Hutchinson and her husband were assessed for three parcels, including two vacant lots, one on each side of their Latigo Shores Road home. Because her home is in a slide area, Hutchinson said the two lots cannot be developed, information not reflected in her $38,622 assessment bill.
"The whole thing is mind-boggling," she said. "We're going to have to pay for pumps, for maintenance, and this is just the initial assessment. Who knows how much its going to be?"
Mike Nagao, a civil engineer with the county Public Works Department, said the county would issue bonds, maturing in 15 to 20 years, to pay for the sewer system. He said property owners could pay off the assessment in one lump sum or over the length of the bond issue.
Even with bills spread out over a number of years, some residents maintain they would have difficulty making payments, which could climb as high as $30,000 for a typical homeowner and would run in the millions for large commercial property owners.
"No matter what happens, if they (the county) approves it, a lot of people will be forced to leave," said 88-year-old William Morris. "I don't know if I would be able to stay, but I can assure you that I have had no pleasure in contemplating my own assessment or in the fact that Malibu will never be the same."
The range of assessments varied, based on the development potential of individual parcels under the Malibu land use plan.
The Los Angeles Athletic Club received a $4.7-million bill for a 48-acre parcel at Topanga Canyon Road and the Pacific Coast Highway where it plans to build a recreational facility.
Pepperdine University was hit with several individual assessments totaling more than $1 million, and property owners around the Malibu Civic Center were billed for seven-figure sums for their undeveloped parcels. Two lots in the area between the Pacific Coast Highway and Malibu Road were assessed at more than $3 million each.