The staff of the California Coastal Commission has recommended that the state panel reject Los Angeles County's controversial proposal for a $43-million sewer project in Malibu.
A report by the staff made public last week represents a blow to the county's longtime effort to build the sewer system.
In the document, the staff said it does not doubt that Malibu needs a sewer system but that the county's construction plans do not meet the environmental standards of the 1976 Coastal Act.
The commission staff criticized the county's plans to build a waste treatment facility next to an expensive subdivision near Pepperdine University, saying it had failed to show that the six-acre site was the "least environmentally damaging" place for the plant.
In addition, the staff said plans to discharge up to 1.3-million gallons of effluent per day into Corral Creek would damage an environmentally sensitive plant and animal habitat and might seriously erode nearby Corral State Beach.
The report said that, if approved, the sewer proposal would prejudice the future city of Malibu's ability to devise a land-use plan compatible with state law.
The long-anticipated report comes as the state panel prepares to decide at its meeting next Thursday in Marina del Rey whether to approve construction of the sewer.
The commission's decision is likely to be critical to the future of the sewer proposal because Malibu's City Council is almost certain to oppose it as the first order of business. Malibu's cityhood is expected to become official by the end of March.
Despite the report, county officials said they remain hopeful that the commission will approve construction.
"I think it will be an interesting, challenging battle as we present our case to the commission," said Harry Stone, the county's deputy director of public works. "I don't know that I would say our chances are substantially diminished."
Although the state panel approved the sewer in principle last year and authorized the county to create a tax assessment district to pay for it, the county still needs the commission's approval before it can start the work.
Malibu voters overwhelmingly approved cityhood in June, but county officials have delayed the actual incorporation until at least March 28 in a bid to start work on the sewer before a new Malibu government has the chance to block it.
Opponents of the sewer, who view it as a prelude to widespread development of the Malibu coast, were jubilant over the commission staff's recommendation.
"We're absolutely delighted," said Sara Wan, vice president of the Malibu Township Council, a slow-growth group. "It's obvious that the staff did a painstaking job of analyzing the matter, and they've concluded that what the county wants to do would be very destructive of the Malibu environment."
Others, however, were more cautious.
"We're pleased, naturally, but I don't think you will see any celebration until after the Coastal Commission takes its vote," said Bob Briskin, a resident of Malibu Country Estates, the subdivision next to the proposed sewer plant site. A homeowners group there has threatened to file a lawsuit against the county to prevent the plant from being built there.
Although the coastal panel is not bound by its staff's recommendation, the commission rarely approves projects after its staff has recommended that they be rejected.
In its 47-page report, the staff said Malibu's need for a sewer is well-documented but that the county should consider other locations for the sewer plant and for the discharge of reclaimed waste water from the plant.
Critics of the plan to discharge the effluent into Corral Creek, including the Sierra Club and other groups, have said the plan would be an environmental disaster.
The commission staff said discharging treated effluent into the creek would create an algae-filled pond that would become stagnant and cause health and environmental problems similar to those at Malibu Lagoon State Beach. The lagoon and beach are frequently unfit for human contact because of pollution, state and county health officials say.
County officials have long argued that a sewer system is needed in Malibu based on studies that document a significant health hazard because of discharges from malfunctioning septic tanks.
These findings by the county Department of Health Services led the Board of Supervisors in 1989 to approve a sewer system over the outcry of hundreds of Malibu residents, who said the county's real aim was to develop the rural coastline.
In approving Malibu's cityhood bid later in 1989, the Local Agency Formation Commission stipulated that the county would have control over the sewer system for up to 10 years after incorporation.
However, sewer opponents, as well as some members of LAFCO, have expressed doubts about the legality of the provision.
In July, a month after Malibu voters approved cityhood, the county sought permission from the Coastal Commission to speed construction of the sewer system by eliminating the wait for several incremental approvals. The panel rejected that bid.
Since then, the county has been rebuffed twice in its efforts to return to the commission for approval of its construction plans.
After sewer opponents raised new questions about environmental aspects of the plan, the commission staff scrubbed the matter from the panel's agenda in November. The commission was to have considered it early last month but the staff had said it needed more time to analyze the proposal.