Having labored for two years to achieve cityhood, Malibu residents were dealt a temporary setback last week by the County Board of Supervisors, which put off until Nov. 21 setting the date for an election to determine whether the seaside community becomes an incorporated city.
At the urging of lawyers for the county, the supervisors rejected the pleas of angry cityhood supporters and postponed setting an election date until after the California Coastal Commission considers whether to approve a revised sewer plan for Malibu.
"We've not had one single protest in the entire community, and they're sitting around trying to find a way to continue holding the incorporation hostage to the sewer project," said Graham Ritchie, an incorporation attorney, of the delay.
Although disappointed, cityhood boosters expressed confidence that the postponement will not result in the election being delayed past next April, which is the earliest it could be held.
"It's going to happen," actor Martin Sheen said. "It's just a matter of when (the supervisors) say yes."
With a film crew from television's "60 Minutes" in tow, Sheen was among about 75 cityhood supporters who came to the hearing aboard two chartered buses. Many in the group waved small American flags during the 90-minute hearing.
Carolyn Van Horn, co-chairwoman of the Malibu Committee for Incorporation, said that 600 other supporters who were unable to attend signed a petition demanding that the supervisors act promptly to set the election.
"After going through two years of this," she said, referring to Malibu's struggle with county officials over cityhood, "it brings home the need for us to have our own local government."
As proposed, the 20-square-mile city would stretch from Topanga Canyon to Leo Carrillo State Beach along Pacific Coast Highway and nearly one mile inland. About 20,000 people reside within the proposed city's borders, including 8,300 registered voters.
The Coastal Commission, which in September rejected the county's $43-million regional sewer plan for Malibu as "oversized," is to consider whether to approve a revised sewer plan during four days of hearings in Marina del Rey, to begin Nov. 14.
The supervisors approved the sewer plan in January over the outcries of residents who predicted it would lead to widespread development of the rural coastline.
County officials have insisted that a sewer system is required for Malibu based on staff studies that, they say, document an existing "significant public health hazard."
In approving a bid by Malibu residents to vote on cityhood, the Local Agency Formation Commission in May stipulated that the county be able to retain control over the sewer system for up to 10 years after incorporation.
On Thursday, county officials expressed concern that if Malibu is allowed to proceed with incorporation before the sewer system clears its final hurdle with the Coastal Commission, a newly elected Malibu city government might be able to block the sewer's construction.
"You must take the steps necessary to ensure that the terms and conditions imposed by LAFCO are satisfied," said Assistant County Counsel Bill Pellman, who recommended that the supervisors delay setting the election.
By law, the supervisors have 60 days from Thursday's hearing to set an election date, making it likely that, even with the latest delay, the election will be set for April.
Several supervisors, including Deane Dana, who is generally considered to be among those most opposed to the incorporation effort, indicated on Thursday that they hope to be able to set the election for April.
However, in recommending that the supervisors move cautiously, Pellman called the state law governing the time limit for setting cityhood elections "directional, and not mandatory," and suggested that the supervisors consider a further delay unless the Coastal Commission next month approves a sewer plan to the county's liking.
"Your decision should depend on what happens at the Coastal Commission," Pellman said. "If there are 12 new issues that come up, and no progress is made, I think we're going to have to reevaluate whether (the Board of Supervisors) can proceed at that point."
County officials, Coastal Commission staff, and representatives of the Malibu Committee for Incorporation and the Malibu Township Council have met privately for several weeks in an attempt to reach a compromise on the revised sewer plan.
However, according to several sources close to the talks, there has been little progress.