Beleaguered Big Rock Mesa residents, who have spent the past five years battling Los Angeles County for damages to their landslide-plagued homes, have been stunned by the county's announcement that it plans to triple the Malibu homeowners' tax assessment for an elaborate water drainage system designed to prevent another devastating slide.
Roger Burger, deputy director of public works, said the county plans to present a $13-million improvement package to supervisors within 60 days that could cost Big Rock Mesa homeowners nearly $100,000 each over the next 20 years, yet would still provide no guarantee that it would stabilize the land mass.
The announcement infuriated mesa residents, who would still have to pay more than a $10,000 levy for a planned Malibu sewer system, which was approved by supervisors early this year. County officials insist that it is needed along with the drainage system to remove water from the hillside area above Pacific Coast Highway.
Several of the 70 Big Rock residents who were told of the assessments at a 4 1/2-hour meeting last week at Pepperdine University said they were furious that the county planned to go ahead with the assessments without hearing their thoughts about the scope and estimated cost of the project.
They also expressed outrage that the additional money would provide no assurance that the mesa could be stabilized and that more funds probably would be needed for a long-term solution.
Funds From Settlement
If the plan goes ahead, the 240 homeowners who won a $97-million settlement from the county, the state and numerous insurance companies in January could end up giving much of it back to the county, which they claim was responsible for the slide. As part of the settlement, no one was blamed for the slide.
"I think we're screwed again," said Big Rock resident Libby Sparks. "We just had a meeting to decide how we could have some input in this, but apparently the decision to go ahead with the project has been made."
The county announced recently that it had used up its $4-million allotment for the improvement district to drain water from Big Rock Mesa. The county sent a letter to area property owners in April telling them that work could not resume until more funds were available, but the county didn't unveil its tax assessment plan until last week.
The property owners must repay the $4 million that the county has spent since a 1983 landslide damaged or destroyed 250 homes on the mesa. The county is proposing a $13-million bond issue--to be repaid by Big Rock residents--to cover the entire cost of the project. County officials said residents would be given the option of paying a one-time assessment of $42,000, or pay interest over the next 20 years, in which case total payments would be about $100,000.
Public works officials have asked supervisors for an additional $800,000 to continue work on dewatering wells and temporary drainage outlets, but county geological consultant Bing Yen said there are significant "information gaps" that can be filled only by expanding the scope of the project.
"In some areas there are indications of stability and in some areas there are indications of instability," Yen said. "We're trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle here."
Yen said he wants to drill several more deep holes into the mesa and replace several failed wells to find out why the ground water is rising in certain areas, particularly along the western end of Big Rock. Kenneth R. Chiate, an attorney who helped engineer the $97-million settlement, said he was outraged that the county has taken so long to provide so few answers to mesa homeowners.
"The county has done nothing to install drains for five years and then all of a sudden they say that in 60 days they're going to assess us $13 million," said Chiate, a Big Rock homeowner. "When you ask someone to spend" so much money, "it would seem reasonable to ask what they could get for it.
"Even if they could tell us that if we did the work we could get building permits or provide some answers it would be different, but when the only thing you're getting after five years is more information, it's easy to see why the homeowners can't be too excited about spending another $100,000."
However, Burger said the answer the homeowners want to hear--that Big Rock can be stabilized and that it's safe to proceed with additional development on the mesa--can't be provided by any consultant.
"We're hopeful that you'll get a better and increased factor of safety," he said. "But we don't know how much. No one can say how much."