The issue that ignited Malibu's long struggle for cityhood--a proposed regional sewer system that Los Angeles County officials insist the seaside community needs--finally comes to a head today before the California Coastal Commission.
In an apparent last-ditch bid to persuade the Coastal Commission to allow the $43-million project to begin, county officials in recent days have offered to make several changes in their proposal.
In a letter to each of the 12 commissioners, county officials said that if the project is approved, the county would take additional steps to ensure that effluent from the sewer system does not erode Corral State Beach or disrupt beach access.
"We believe that the conditions we're offering to abide by will alleviate any concerns the commission may have about the project," said Harry Stone, the county's deputy director of public works.
The sewer is opposed by many Malibu residents, who say it would open up the region to extensive development. Critics of the sewer plan called the county's latest offer a desperate ploy.
"What they're proposing is totally inadequate," said Dave Brown, chairman of the Santa Monica Mountains Task Force. "They're merely trying to confuse the issue at the eleventh hour with elements that do not nearly address all of the problems."
The Coastal Commission staff recommended late last month that the project be rejected, citing environmental reasons.
The staff said that plans to discharge up to 1.3 million gallons of treated effluent per day into Corral Creek would damage an environmentally sensitive plant and animal habitat and might seriously erode Corral State Beach. The creek empties into the ocean at the state beach after flowing through a culvert beneath Pacific Coast Highway.
According to the staff report, treated effluent discharged 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. Water at the lagoon and beach is often unfit for human contact because of pollution, state and county health officials say.
The county has offered to grade or rake the sandy berm at the mouth of Corral Creek daily, if necessary, to prevent the buildup of sediment that would help create a pond, Stone said. With grading, instead of a pond, there would be a "sheet flow" of effluent "no more than a quarter of an inch to maybe an inch deep" spread across part of the beach, he said.
As part of the plan, the county would build a pedestrian bridge across the stretch of beach covered by effluent and pay for a traffic signal at a new pedestrian crosswalk on Pacific Coast Highway for use by beach-goers.
Stone said the 40-foot-long wooden bridge "would be available for anyone who, despite the effluent being perfectly safe for human contact, might not want to wade through it."
However, critics of the project dismissed the county's latest offer as too little, too late.
"It looks to me like they know they're going down with a loser (of a plan)," said Sara Wan, vice president of the Malibu Township Council, a slow-growth group. "It's another example of the county saying something and expecting everyone to accept it on faith. We'd rather see some reliable data."
In its report to the commissioners, the coastal panel's staff also criticized the county's plans to build a waste-treatment facility next to an expensive subdivision near Pepperdine University, saying that it had failed to show that the six-acre site was the "least environmentally damaging" place for the plant.
The report also 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 decision today by the Coastal Commission, which is holding its monthly meeting in Marina del Rey, is expected to be critical to the future of the sewer proposal, because Malibu's elected-but-not-yet-empowered City Council is almost certain to oppose it as the first order of business once Malibu becomes a city, probably in March.
Although voters overwhelmingly approved cityhood last June, the County Board of Supervisors has delayed the actual incorporation until March 28 in a bid to start work on the sewer before a new Malibu government has the chance to block it.
County officials have hinted that they may try to delay cityhood until 1992 if they continue to be stymied in their efforts to build the sewer. However, recent developments may make such a delay unlikely.
Cityhood backers have pushed a measure in the state Legislature that would nullify the delay. They hope to have the measure ready for Gov. Pete Wilson's signature next month.
The Coastal Commission approved the Malibu sewer in principle in 1989 and authorized the county to set up a sewer-tax assessment district to pay for it. However, the county still needs commission approval before construction may begin. The county is eager to start the work before Malibu becomes a city to enhance its legal ability to finish the project in the face of almost certain opposition from Malibu's future government. To that end, county officials have used legal maneuvers to delay cityhood until March, even though 84% of Malibu voters approved incorporation last June.