The county Board of Supervisors, which agreed to a $35-million pay-out to Big Rock Mesa homeowners in January, has tentatively approved an elaborate storm drain project designed to prevent a repeat of the devastating landslide that damaged or destroyed 250 homes there in 1983.
But the board’s approval on Tuesday of the environmental study for the project prompted an angry reaction from homeowners.
Some residents of the exclusive Malibu community say they are upset not because they will have to pay for the project, but because the county has provided no estimate of the cost.
“This is as if you go to a store and buy something, and after you buy it, the storekeeper tells you how much it costs. It’s loony,” said screenwriter Kurt Villadsen, a longtime mesa homeowner.
Ken Chiate, attorney for homeowners in the recently settled lawsuit against the county and a Big Rock resident himself, said: “We don’t know if it will cost $1,000 per home or $50,000. It’s a reflection of ineptness of the highest magnitude for them to be this far along and not know the cost.”
County officials say they have no reliable cost figures because the area’s shifting geology could dramatically alter the price tag between now and the end of the year, when the Department of Public Works expects to present a financing plan to the supervisors.
“We don’t have a cost figure. It’s a developing proposal,” said Roger Burger, a deputy director of public works. When a good estimate is calculated, probably in three or four months, owners will be notified, he said. “We absolutely expect to keep them fully informed.”
Burger also noted that the county is not yet certain which property owners will benefit from the project and will be billed for it.
May Have Stabilized
Even some of the 30 homes condemned after the 1983 slide could be assessed, he said. “That’s one of the things we have under study. . . . If the landslide is stabilized, then that becomes a buildable lot.”
Supervisors approved the environmental report this week so that the county could apply to state agencies such as Caltrans and the Coastal Commission for permits required for construction, Burger said.
The public works department created a furor last fall when its early estimate of per-home costs for a Malibu sewer system more than doubled in two months. Big Rock Mesa is in that new sewer district, and homeowners have each been assessed $9,999 for it.
Still, Chiate said, it is outrageous that the county would tentatively approve the storm drain project without a cost estimate.
Since homeowners filed their lawsuit against the county in 1984, claiming that it had allowed construction that caused the landslide, “the county has refused to tell us what they’re doing. Now we don’t have any idea what they’re doing. There has to be somebody who responds to homeowner inquiries,” Chiate said.
Burger said the county has kept property owners informed through a series of newsletters about the landslide. One sent in October to about 550 mesa-area addresses mentioned the current project.
“Plans for permanent surface drainage improvements are close to being finalized,” the newsletter said. It estimated construction for summer, 1989.
County officials have already begun negotiations with property owners for easements where storm drains will be built, offering $2,000 per easement, Chiate said.
The new project consists of 10 catch basins and 7,000 feet of polyethylene pipe that would run across the mesa and in ravines and other natural runoff channels to Pacific Coast Highway, where a collection system will be installed. It also may include new landslide monitoring equipment and will place into underground vaults 18 existing wells that pump water from the water table.
$4 Million Spent
Those wells have been installed by the county under the aegis of a community improvement district, which homeowners helped form in 1983 after the mudslide. Since then, the county has spent nearly $4 million to pump millions of gallons of water from the ground and to monitor the continuing slippage of the mesa.
That amount will eventually have to be repaid by homeowners in the improvement district. The new project, Chiate said, could cost another $4 million. Chiate said that guess is based on a $500,000 estimate he received from a county engineer for a drainage channel to be built near the attorney’s home.
The supervisors agreed two months ago to pay $35 million as the county’s share of a $97-million settlement to 240 Big Rock Mesa property owners. The owners claimed that their houses were damaged or destroyed because development approved by the county contributed to a rise in the water table that triggered the 1983 slide.
Chiate said homeowners, though hoping to gain local control over the improvement district, plan to cooperate with the county on the storm drain project.
“If the county does what is reasonable and prudent, the homeowners are not going to object,” he said. “It’s their homes that are being saved.”