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County Plan for Malibu Sewer Faces Toughest Test

September 10, 1989|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

Despite its status as a world-renowned celebrity haven, Malibu has been mired in a most unglamorous debate for the past two years over how to get rid of its sludge.

But the issue may be partially resolved this week when a $43-million sewer system for Malibu, approved by Los Angeles County supervisors against the wishes of thousands of residents, faces its toughest test.

Staff planners for the California Coastal Commission, which must approve the system, have recommended that the state panel reject the sewer assessment district proposed by the county. Commission planners contend that the sewer system's capacity could trigger development in Malibu beyond the limits set in the area's Land Use Plan. The commission will hold a public hearing on the sewer proposal in Marina del Rey on Wednesday.

If the commission follows the recommendation, it will be a setback for county officials, who have sided with development interests and sought to place a regional sewer in Malibu for more than two decades. When supervisors approved the system in January over the outcry of hundreds of residents who predicted that it would lead to widespread development, the Coastal Commission and the Malibu Township Council filed lawsuits. The suits forced the county supervisors to agree to give the Coastal Commission final say over the plan.

'We Don't Agree'

"Obviously, we're disappointed with the commission's findings and we don't agree with it," said Harry Stone, deputy director of the county Public Works Department. "But at this point we're still trying to digest the information. I don't know what we'll do if the commission accepts the recommendation."

Stone said that county officials are scheduled to meet with the commission's planning staff before Wednesday's hearing "to go over their figures." The planning staff has suggested that the county resubmit a revised plan for the sewer assessment district.

Under the Land Use Plan adopted by the commission and the county in 1986, a limit of 2,110 residential units can be built in the coastal area stretching from Topanga Canyon to the Ventura County line and about five miles inland. In the three years since the plan was adopted, more than 1,000 new residential units have been built.

The plan allows the cap to be raised to 6,582 residential units if another lane is added to Pacific Coast Highway, but Caltrans has no plans to expand the two-lane road, and no studies are under way to see if it is even feasible.

Based on Acreage

Commission planners say that since the sewer assessment district set up by the county is based on total acreage rather than the number of parcels that could be developed in Malibu, the county's sewer plan might exceed the development limits outlined in the Land Use Plan. The staff report also said the county sewer plan would allow commercial development in Malibu's Civic Center "far in excess" of that allowed in the Land Use Plan.

In addition, the staff report said the county failed to determine how many residential units could be built in geologically unstable areas such as landslide-plagued Big Rock Mesa, which includes hundreds of parcels.

Because the county left out such critical information in its sewer proposal, "commission staff was unable to determine the ultimate level of (development) allowed by the Land Use Plan within the assessment district," and suggested that the missing figures be included in a revised plan.

The sewer hearing is particularly significant to the future of Malibu because its outcome could affect the cityhood drive that residents launched in 1987 in response to the county's insistence that the community needs a regional sewer system. The supervisors have scheduled an Oct. 19 hearing to set an election date in Malibu, but if county officials are sent scrambling back to the drawing board to revise the sewer plan, it could delay the election.

Would Retain Control

After more than a year of trying, county officials this summer were able to convince the Local Agency Formation Commission--the panel that decides incorporation matters--that the county should retain control over sewers in Malibu for up 10 years after it incorporates.

Still, community leaders, who have fought the the sewer plan and who want to incorporate to wrest control of Malibu from the county, said they are pleased with the commission staff's findings.

"Our concern is that anything that would induce buildup would severely compromise the Land Use Plan and harm the natural resources that Malibu represents," said Larry Wan, president of the Malibu Township Council. "And we believe that the county's (sewer) would be greatly growth-inducing."

The county's sewer plan calls for construction of a sewer treatment plant and a pumping system to carry waste water up to seven miles along Pacific Coast Highway.

Health Hazard Cited

County officials have insisted that a sewer is required, based on staff studies that they say documents a "significant public health hazard" because of discharges from malfunctioning septic tanks, particularly in the million-dollar beachfront properties. The findings by the Department of Health Services allowed the county to impose a sewer system--with typical hookup fees of $10,000 per home--without a vote of the community.

Sewer opponents, several hundred of whom are expected to show up for the Coastal Commission hearing, say the biggest flaw of the county system is that it forces homeowners to pay for a system that mostly benefits commercial interests. They contend that about 70% of the $43-million system will be paid for by property owners outside the Civic Center area, a vast majority of whom are single-family homeowners.

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