In what may spell trouble for Los Angeles County's plans to install a regional sewer system in Malibu, planners for the California Coastal Commission have recommended that the system be sharply reduced before the panel gives its approval.
The recommendation, issued last week, disappointed county officials, whose $43-million sewer plan for Malibu was rejected by the Coastal Commission in September as oversized.
Since then, officials have scrambled to put together a revised plan, which is to be presented to the Coastal Commission on Tuesday during a public hearing in Marina del Rey.
But the commission staff took a dim view of key parts of the county's plan, recommending that the system's capacity to serve commercial users be cut in half and suggesting that the county's estimates of the capacity needed to serve residential users also be reduced to reflect water conservation measures.
If the commission follows its staff's advice, it would not only put a crimp in the county's long effort to install the kind of sewer system officials say is needed, but it could also cloud the prospects of a cityhood election in Malibu occurring soon.
"We have a major disagreement," said Harry Stone, the county's deputy director of public works, of the recommendation to scale back the system's size.
County officials have long argued that a sewer system is needed in Malibu. They say staff studies document a significant public health hazard because of discharges from malfunctioning septic tanks.
These findings, by the Department of Health Services, enabled the county to impose a sewer system over the objections of hundreds of Malibu residents, who view the county's plans as a recipe for widespread development of their seaside community.
Opponents were elated by the coastal staff's recommendation.
"As a whole, the staff report is excellent," said Sara Wan, a member of the 2,000-member Malibu Township Council. "If the commission approves a system with these modifications, we will get a system much more in keeping with Malibu's needs."
She and other opponents of the county's plans predicted that the changes, if approved by the commission, could reduce the size of the system by as much as 50%.
"What's left would still allow for modest commercial growth, but what it means is that developers won't be able to carpet the Civic Center area wall to wall with hotels and restaurants," said Mike Caggiano, who serves on a citizens' sewer advisory panel.
The commission's decision Tuesday could have a bearing on whether the Board of Supervisors decides Nov. 21 to set an election date to determine whether Malibu becomes an incorporated city.
Malibu cityhood supporters were angered last month when the supervisors put off setting an election. By law, the supervisors have 60 days from last month's hearing, or until late December, to set an election date, making it likely that, even with the delay, the election will be held in April.
However, several supervisors have indicated that they may seek to delay the matter further unless the Coastal Commission approves a sewer system to the county's liking.
Last week, Stone said public works officials "would have great difficulty" recommending to the supervisors that they set an election date if the commission approves a downscaled system like the one the staff has recommended.
"We're continuing to work with the staff, and we're hopeful that at least some of their recommendations might change prior to (next Tuesday)," he said. "I try to be optimistic."
The county has pushed for a system capable of providing commercial users in each of four different categories with capacities of 4,000 gallons of water per day per acre. By the same formula, the staff is recommending that the capacities be cut to 2,000 gallons.
Opponents of the county plan view the gallonage as a key issue, saying that what the county wants is far in excess of Malibu's present needs and would trigger development beyond the limits of the area's 1986 land-use plan.
"I'm sure the commercial reductions have caused the county a Maalox moment, but the sewer has not been stopped, so I see no reason for the county to try to illegally prevent an election," Caggiano said.
Besides reducing the sewer system's size, opponents were also pleased that the staff recommended removing almost half of the Pepperdine University campus from the area's assessment district.
Opponents say this could help them protest any future attempt by the county to expand whatever sewer system is approved.
To mount a majority protest to overturn a sewer plan requires signatures of owners of more than 50% of the property in an assessment district. Critics have accused the county of gerrymandering the district by including Pepperdine and other major landowners known to favor the sewer plan.