Dissension Racks Advisory Group on Malibu Sewer Plan

Times Staff Writer

Warring factions in Malibu that united recently to fight Los Angeles County’s proposal to build an $86-million sewer system in the beachside community are battling each other again over the best alternatives to the costly regional sewer plan.

The advisory committee formed to recommend those alternatives to county supervisors came under attack again at its meeting this week, this time from a member of the committee who questioned the makeup of the panel and its ability to perform its task without funding from the county.

Leon Cooper, one of three members of the Malibu Township Council on the advisory panel, read a letter to the committee, saying that since the committee’s first meeting last month, the council “has become increasingly aware of a growing sentiment in the Malibu community that this committee has been selected by the county to act as its rubber stamp.

“Questions persist, about the manner in which the committee members were selected, the scope of their mandate and function, and what credence, if any, the county is prepared to give to their recommendations. These questions and others must be answered if this committee is to retain its credibility and not be dismissed by the people that we ostensibly represent. . . .”


Although Cooper said that the council would try to allay community concerns about the “legitimacy and independence” of the committee, he said it cannot do so unless the panel addresses those key questions.

Cooper’s comments riled other committee members, who were angered that the council, a civic group representing about 1,000 families in Malibu, formed a separate committee to study the sewer issue before the county panel was created.

Harry Stone, the county’s deputy director of public works who is acting chairman of the committee, said he was disappointed with the tone of Cooper’s comments, which he called “divisive and confrontational.”

Stone said the committee can only function on a consensus basis in which “everybody has to give in on some of their pet things.”


Panel member Roy Crummer, the largest developer in Malibu’s Civic Center, said he was amazed at Cooper’s comments because the committee was formed by supervisors after they heard overwhelming community opposition during a public hearing in October.

Weighty Recommendation

“The perception that this is a rubber stamp is intriguing since no one on this committee supported a regional system to begin with,” Crummer said. “I personally believe that the recommendation of this committee will carry a lot of weight with the supervisors.”

The 4 1/2-hour meeting at Pepperdine University was contentious from the beginning, with several committee members questioning the county staff’s methods for determining septic tank failures in Malibu.


County public health officials said they plan to study every private septic tank in Malibu--approximately 2,500--to determine the number of faulty tanks and the scope of any health hazard.

All three committee members from the Malibu Township Council questioned the premise that a health hazard exists in Malibu, saying that the panel has not been given any evidence.

In 1985, the county proclaimed that a health hazard exists in Malibu, which allowed supervisors to consider the regional sewer plan without voter approval. However, the county backed down from the proposal when more than 1,000 angry residents and community leaders went to the public hearing and voiced their opposition.

Disposal Zone Proposal


County supervisors then formed the citizen’s committee but passed a resolution noting once again that a health hazard exists in Malibu.

The advisory panel is scheduled to deliver a preliminary report of its findings to supervisors on Dec. 29.

The panel heard a report from an official of the Questa Engineering Corp. in Point Richmond, Calif., outlining the steps necessary to creating an “on-site waste-water disposal zone” similar to those in Northern California beach towns like Stinson Beach and Sea Ranch.

Norman Hantzsche, the firm’s managing engineer, told the committee that an initial feasibility study to determine whether Malibu is suitable for that type of disposal system would cost approximately $30,000 and take about three months to complete. A more detailed study of existing septic systems would cost up to $125,000, he said, adding that he did not know yet whether setting up a formal disposal zone would be suitable for Malibu.


Mike Johnson, chief geologist for the county Department of Public Works, also told the panel that water leaks from some septic tanks contribute to the landslide problems in the mountain areas of Malibu.

He said a system that includes septic tanks “does not eliminate a continuous source of water” in those areas, which adds weight to the unstable hillsides and lubricates the shifting rocks.

Won’t Stop Problem

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to pump water into the ground and then set up a program to pump it out,” Johnson said, referring to the county’s attempts to drain water from the more unstable hillside areas. “However, a regional sewer system won’t eliminate the (landslide) problem either.”


Several in the audience bristled when committee member Andrew Benton, vice president for administration at Pepperdine University, suggested that the panel split into two subcommittee, with one focusing on sewage issues in the Civic Center and the other dealing with the geologic problems in the east end of Malibu.

At Stone’s suggestion, the sub-committees were limited to five members, less than the quorum of the full committee and hence not be subject to legal restrictions on public meetings. The motion was approved unanimously--and attacked swiftly by members of the audience.

“All we’re seeing here is a repeat of previous sewer hearings, which really weren’t hearings at all,” said Bob Greenberg, a member of the Malibu Coalition Committee, the group formed by the township council to study sewer issues. “I haven’t seen any response to requests for more citizen participation.”

Stone, who has balked at several requests to include more citizens, architects and technicians on the panel, said he would attempt to get some funding for the committee from the county, but he wasn’t optimistic.


“Frankly, I’d love to have some money, but I don’t see the source for it right now,” he said. “When there is a price tag on specific needs, we’ll be happy to talk to the CAO (county administrator’s office.)”

Stone said he might respond to Cooper’s letter to the committee at the next meeting, which will be held at Pepperdine University on Dec. 14 at 6 p.m.