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Malibu’s Sewer District Criticized as Unfairly Drawn

Times Staff Writer

Malibu community leaders are accusing Los Angeles County officials of gerrymandering the area’s sewer assessment district by assigning less than 50% of the district to the town’s residential areas.

To mount a “majority protest” to overturn the sewer plan, the signatures of owners of more than 50% of property in the district would have been required. Instead, four of the area’s major landowners, known to favor the $43-million sewer plan, were assigned the majority of acreage in the district.

John B. Murdock, lawyer for the Malibu Township Council who filed a lawsuit challenging the financial “inequities” of the assessment district last month, said the acreage allotment would be challenged when additional court briefs are filed in May.

Accusations by Sewer Foes

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Although four county supervisors voted to approve the sewer district in January--the number needed to override any majority protest--sewer foes say county public works officials purposely designed the district to block potential confrontation with residents.

“I had credited the people who make these decisions with some degree of sophistication,” said Leon Cooper, Township Council vice president. “But this is so obvious, I can’t see how they could have done anything more to reveal their motives, their strategy and their objectives.

“It’s ironic that they worked so hard to plan this out, and they didn’t even need to do it.”

Harry Stone, deputy director of public works, denied the gerrymandering allegation and noted that residents who own 18% of the acreage in the district had filed protests. He said the district was drawn up in the most equitable way possible.

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However, critics point to Pepperdine University’s assessment as one example of the alleged gerrymandering. They say that although Pepperdine University’s long-range plans call for only 311 acres of the sprawling campus to be developed, the county assessed all 785 acres owned by the university. As a result, even though more than half of the campus has been designated as open space, the university makes up 41% of the entire sewer district.

In addition, more than 200 acres at the campus that are zoned for less than one dwelling unit per acre were included in the district, even though the district guidelines say that such land should not be assessed.

“The reason the entire campus was zoned was that we were looking at Pepperdine as one holding,” Stone said. “The acreage was spread out across the entire campus, specifically as a lien against the bond holding.”

The county has not issued the bonds to pay for the sewer system.

Critics of the sewer plan say the district’s design underscores the “inequity” of the assessments. Although Pepperdine’s acreage makes up 41% of the sewer district, the university’s $3-million assessment is only 8% of the cost of system.

“The county created an assessment district that could not be protested even if every resident in it objected,” said Mike Caggiano, a former RAND Corp. analyst who challenged the district’s makeup at the January supervisors’ hearing.

The typical homeowner in the sewer district faces a $9,900 tax bill for the project. However, the lawsuit by the Township Council and another suit by the California Coastal Commission has damaged the marketability of the bonds and could add about $12 million to the project cost, county officials said.

Unfair Burden

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The Township Council suit alleges that the county sewer plan burdens homeowners along a seven-mile coastal strip with an unfair share of fees. The Coastal Commission is challenging the legitimacy of the sewer district, maintaining that state approval was required but not obtained by the county.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kurt Lewin set a May 8 hearing date for the Coastal Commission suit. The Township Council’s challenge will probably be heard in June, Murdock said.

The county has been trying to place a sewer system in Malibu for more than two decades. Opponents say a sewer would open the beachfront area to widespread commercial development. But sewer backers maintain that any growth would take place in an orderly fashion as permitted under local and state development plans.

County officials insisted that a sewer was required based on staff studies that they say document a “significant public health hazard” because of discharges from malfunctioning septic tanks. The findings by the Department of Health Services allowed the county to impose a sewer system without a vote of the community.


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