A year after 1,000 angry Malibu residents packed county chambers to oppose an $86-million sewer plan, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday enthusiastically endorsed a scaled-down proposal that would allow most residents to continue to use septic tanks but also would answer county health concerns about them.
The new plan, submitted by a committee of Malibu residents, merchants and landowners, would cost $34 million, or about $4,000 per home instead of the $12,000 minimum projected for the earlier proposal. Property owners whose septic tanks work properly would not be forced to hook up.
The proposal calls for construction of a small sewer system in Malibu’s Civic Center area and a pumping system that would carry waste water up to 7 miles from septic tanks in troubled landslide areas, such as Big Rock Mesa, to a central disposal plant near the Civic Center.
It also recommends creation of a special district, run by local residents, to operate the sewer system along a half-mile-deep strip of coastline from Tuna Canyon west to the Civic Center.
The supervisors, expressing relief that the new plan apparently has broad local support, said they are optimistic that it can meet the community’s future sewer needs and end 20 years of dispute over the health hazard posed by septic tanks.
“At long last I think we have some viable solutions that will be accepted by the community,” Supervisor Ed Edelman said. “We’re not ramming anything down anyone’s throat.”
Supervisor Deane Dana, whose 4th District includes Malibu and who had once strongly backed the $86-million proposal, said: “The mere fact that you don’t have a roomful of people here today says a lot. Keep the committee moving.”
The supervisors, on a 4-0 vote, directed county officials to continue to work with the 11-member Malibu Regional Wastewater System Citizens’ Committee in preparing an environmental report. Pete Schabarum was absent.
That environmental analysis should be completed by the end of the month, with hearings in early December and a vote by the supervisors on a final, detailed plan in January, said Thomas A. Tidemanson, county public works director. Phased construction, which would take at least 18 months, could begin by 1990, he said.
Tidemanson said he saw no roadblocks to the plan, although he said the septic tank pumping system would cost more to maintain than traditional gravity-based systems.
‘Meets All Our Needs’
Data from a new county Health Department study of Malibu septic tanks was included in the citizen committee’s study, he said.
The committee plan “meets all of our needs out there, the health issue and the sewer issues,” he said in an interview. “I think that unless we find problems in the more detailed analysis, this is a done deal.”
Tidemanson’s optimism echoed that of the supervisors, though board member Kenneth Hahn seemed to find the proposal’s reception within the Malibu community hard to believe.
“We’ve been talking about this sewer problem in Malibu for 20 years . . . and you (solved) it in 500 hours?” Hahn asked one committee spokesman. “I never expected peace in Malibu.”
After Supervisor Mike Antonovich said the proposal “makes economic sense” and described it as the consensus of Malibu residents, committee spokesman John Sibert cautioned that the Malibu Township Council will not formally consider it until next Thursday.
Sibert, who is a member of the Township Council’s executive board, said that although many residents have attended committee hearings since May, “there are concerns.”
“Everyone wants to know what the bottom line is going to be,” Sibert said.
Detailed answers are not yet available, he said. But engineering studies done by private consultants for the committee say that residents who opt to maintain an on-site disposal system could face improvement costs of between $2,000 and $73,000, depending on the condition of their tanks.
Under the new plan, many septic tanks would have to be repaired to meet current plumbing standards. Malibu tanks are operated under obsolete plumbing codes adopted up to 50 years ago, Tidemanson said.
Another longstanding issue, Sibert said, is that residents have wanted to vote on any new sewer system. That right was taken away when county officials declared Malibu septic tanks to be a health hazard, a finding that geological experts hired by the community have disputed.
Attempting to sidestep the health issue, the citizens committee said its recommendations are designed to address landslide problems and needs created by growth and are not based on “any finding of a health hazard.”
The Civic Center sewer plant would be built in phases to accommodate growth allowed by a state-approved coastal development plan, but “must not be growth-inducing,” the committee said in a report to the supervisors.
For years, a majority of residents and landowners have resisted efforts by the county to build a sewer in Malibu, saying it would spur unwanted and haphazard development along the coast. The resistance has also spurred a continuing effort to incorporate Malibu.
The supervisors must approve any sewer system as long as Malibu remains unincorporated. And county officials said Tuesday that the new sewer plan probably will be approved before the next election in which residents could vote on cityhood.
“This should long be resolved before the Malibu incorporation,” Edelman said. “This is a separate issue.”
If the sewer district does predate cityhood, it might function independently of the city and the county or be run by a board representing both, since a portion of the sewer district is not within the boundaries of the proposed city, county officials said.