Malibu Turns Out in Force to Fight Sewer System Plan

Times Staff Writer

More than 200 Malibu residents confronted county officials this week at a town hall meeting, vowing to fight a controversial county plan to construct a regional sewer system along the coast.

After the standing-room-only meeting, community leaders said they are organizing a mass protest April 11 at a public hearing before the county Board of Supervisors and are chartering a bus to encourage residents to attend.

Monday night, when much of Los Angeles was tuned in to the Academy Awards telecast, Malibu residents jammed into the Malibu Civic Center for what had been slated as a question-and-answer session with county officials. But 25 residents used the opportunity to challenge the county's plan. Only one resident spoke in support of it.

Emotions ran high at some points, with residents shouting and accusing county officials of "selling out" to developer interests.

"You big county people tell us that we're going to approve of this sewer, and then you tell us that we're going to pay for this sewer. We aren't going to do either," yelled one angry homeowner who declined to give his name.

Two weeks ago, the board announced its proposal to build a regional sewer system and approved a $1.2-million study of the plan's feasibility, costs and environmental impact.

Approval of the study--which would be paid for by 3,300 Malibu landowners identified in a county-proposed tax assessment district--spurred widespread criticism that the project would lead to overdevelopment.

County officials told the group Monday that residents who own land in the proposed tax assessment district must notify the Board of Supervisors before April 11 if they oppose the tax district.

The informal "votes" received in writing by the supervisors from landowners will be used to determine whether the board needs a 4-1 majority or 3-2 majority to create the district, county officials said.

According to county officials, if owners representing 51% or more of the land in the district oppose its creation, the Board of Supervisors would be forced to garner a 4-1 vote to overrule the community and proceed with the study. But if owners representing the majority of land support the county plan, the supervisors need only three votes to approve it.

Because county codes give more weight to the votes of large landowners than to the individual number of votes, county officials conceded that large landowners will have more clout on the issue.

About 3,300 landowners have been notified that they are within the proposed assessment district--a sprinkling of unconnected higher-density neighborhoods along a 25-mile stretch of coastline.

'Gerrymandering' Charged

Frank Basso, president of the Malibu Township Council, which organized the meeting, said the tax district was tantamount to "gerrymandering for developers."

The district includes commercial areas, Pepperdine University and other large parcels of land whose owners would benefit from construction of sewers, Basso said.

He predicted that if the sewer system is ultimately installed in those areas, "in a few years the county will come back to the small homeowners in undeveloped areas and say, 'Gee, since we have 25 miles of sewers laid underneath here, why doesn't everybody in Malibu get on the system?' "

However, Peter Ireland, Malibu field deputy for Supervisor Deane Dana, said there was no attempt to carve out an assessment district filled with landowners who would back the county.

County 'Following Code'

County officials mapped the district by including all parcels in Malibu with proposed or existing densities of two units or more per acre, he said.

"I can see the argument that larger landowners are going to have a stronger vote, but only by virtue of the fact that the county is following its own codes," Ireland said Wednesday. "There was no attempt to weight this issue to either side."

Many residents, including Basso, pointed out that Malibu voters have turned down sewage bond issues three times since 1966, largely because they fear construction of a sewer system would lead to commercialization of the coastline.

Sarah Dixon, a Malibu homeowner, said such concerns reach well beyond the community because overdevelopment of Malibu would alter the character of one of the most popular stretches of beach in the nation.

"The best function for Malibu is really to serve the people of Los Angeles, and people from all over, and that's why this is such a frightening thing," she said.

"This really isn't a local issue; it's an issue of what are we doing to this national recreation area."

'Historic Complaint'

However, county officials discounted fears that construction of a sewage system might lead to unfettered development.

"That perhaps is the historic complaint or cry, but no development can take place that's inconsistent with the general coastal plan for Malibu," Ireland said.

"I know there are people who say it will just invite rapid development, but there are no high-rises in the coastal plan."

Brian Scanlon, a county sanitation engineer, said the local coastal plan approved by the county and being reviewed now by the California Coastal Commission "calls for some fairly urban development that can't be sustained without a sewer system."

He said zoning densities of four and six houses per acre are specified for several areas of Malibu under the plan.

Sanitation Hazards Cited

"There might be fears that if you put in an oversized sewage system, then the lobbying would begin to alter the local coastal plan for more development," he said Wednesday. "But this system will be big enough only for what is already allowed in the plan."

Regardless of the growth expected in Malibu, he said, the community's reliance on septic tanks and a handful of small, aging sewer systems has led to sanitation hazards that can best be corrected with a sewer system.

The county Department of Health Services reported that the septic tanks along Malibu's beachfront properties had washed out during the big storm of 1983, sending bacteria into the water and polluting a 12-mile stretch of ocean.

Scanlon and health officials argued that the incident, along with numerous other problems with septic tanks in Malibu, necessitated construction of a sewer system.

Lack of Code Enforcement

However, several residents said after the meeting that the county has not bothered to address the sewage problems on a cheaper, more individual basis.

"The county has not even attempted to enforce sanitation codes out here that would get everybody's septic tanks in order," said homeowner Sarah Dixon.

"In fact, they haven't addressed any of the cheaper alternatives to a regional sewer system, they just seem to be moving right ahead."

Residents said they are the ones who will ultimately pay for the county's $35-million-plus sewage system.

Already, hundreds of residents in the proposed tax district have received notices from the county that they will be asked to pay $290 or more to fund the $1.2-million county study.

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