A last-gasp attempt by Los Angeles County supervisors to wrest control of sewers from the proposed city of Malibu was put on hold for two weeks Wednesday, after members of the Local Agency Formation Commission decided that they needed more time to study the issue.
LAFCO's action followed a week of intense behind-the-scenes lobbying by Supervisors Pete Schabarum and Deane Dana to convince commissioners on the state panel that a "significant health hazard" exists in Malibu and that the county needs to place a regional sewer system in the area to offset the problem.
The maneuver by the supervisors, both of whom sit on the 7-member LAFCO panel, was the latest in a 20-year battle to build a regional sewer system that critics say will bring uncontrolled development to the area. Schabarum had prepared a written motion to allow the county to retain jurisdiction over sewers in Malibu for up to 10 years after Malibu incorporates.
Earlier this month, LAFCO rejected the county's request to retain control over sewers in Malibu, but supervisors retaliated by pointing to a preliminary report by the county Department of Health Services that claims leaking septic systems are creating a health hazard in the coastal community.
According to the report, scheduled to be completed in September, 43% of the 562 beachfront dwellings inspected in Malibu in March either had illegal waste-water bypass lines from their septic tanks or were discharging waste water onto the surface of the ground.
Although similar data was rejected by the supervisors as faulty during a hearing last October, Dr. Ralph Lopez, deputy director of county environmental health, said the new findings show that the number of leaking septic systems in the area has risen sharply during the last eight months.
"The data not only validates earlier findings but further emphasizes the need for a sewer system to be installed in . . . Malibu," the preliminary report concludes.
However, LAFCO Commissioner Henri Pellissier questioned the validity of the county's figures, noting that there has been no attempt by the county to cite the illegal discharges by Malibu homeowners. Pellissier said that despite the county's figures, there is no conclusive evidence that a health hazard exists in the beachside town.
"I don't hear that we have a health problem today or that we had a problem a year ago," he said. "There is just no proof."
Several LAFCO members, who did not receive the preliminary health report and an accompanying letter from Schabarum until Tuesday evening, said they needed more time to review the study. Another hearing on the matter was scheduled for Aug. 10.
It appears likely that Malibu residents will vote on incorporation in March. Attempts to place the measure on the November ballot were blocked by county supervisors.
" . . . While the residents (of Malibu) are quite capable of opposing issues, they have demonstrated no ability to seek meaningful solutions to the issues confronting them," Schabarum wrote in his letter to commissioners. " . . . The fledgling city of Malibu would not be in a position to tackle the very real and very pressing need for a regional sewer system, which would extend beyond the boundaries of the proposed city."
Several of the commissioners commented on the lobbying by Schabarum and Dana at the hearing. "I've been bombarded for quite a while now, and I'm prepared to act on this thing today," said LAFCO Chairman Tom Jackson, who previously voted against the county's request to give it jurisdiction over sewers in Malibu even if it becomes a city.
LAFCO members said they would allow incorporation backers to prepare a written rebuttal to the county's health claims.
"As usual, their report is filled with wrong and misleading information," said Walt Keller, co-chairman of the Malibu Committee for Incorporation. "The entire lobbying effort by the supervisors makes it look as if they are attempting to exert undue influence on the LAFCO commissioners."