Los Angeles County supervisors voted this week to accept a gift of six acres in Malibu as the likely site of a sewer treatment facility, even though sisters Sylvia R. A. Neville and Rhoda-May Dallas were said to have tried at the last minute to withdraw their offer to donate the land.
"After some discussions involving the county, their thinking was to pull back completely," said attorney Thomas K. Houston, referring to an apparent change of heart by the sisters, who control the Adamson Cos., a major Malibu landowner.
Houston, an Adamson attorney, said that when county officials were informed that Neville and Dallas had changed their minds, "they said that if that were the case, they would just go ahead and condemn (the property) anyway."
In voting Tuesday to accept the gift, the supervisors approved a plan to acquire the six acres next to Pepperdine University by condemnation, if necessary.
As part of a private deal with the county, Neville and Dallas had agreed to surrender the property in exchange for the county's helping to expedite approval of a 300-room, $65-million hotel the sisters want to build in Malibu. The hotel depends on the sewer being built.
But Houston indicated that Neville and Dallas, the firm's general partners, were disturbed by "recent rumblings from the county" that officials might not be able to help the company with the hotel.
Houston said there was never any explicit agreement with the county.
"All we expected was that the county might be able to help us out with some permits. But the recent rumblings from the county are that maybe they're not even going to be in a position to do that," he said.
Critics of the arrangement have accused the county of pushing the deal with the Adamson Cos. for the sake of expediency, despite claims that the parcel is too close to residential development, and too close to an earthquake fault to be considered safe.
County officials, eager to get a sewer system under way before a new Malibu government has the chance to block it, have acknowledged that they have no ready backup site for the sewer plant if their plans for the property hit a snag.
Malibu voters will decide June 5 whether the community becomes a city, and approval is widely expected. They will also pick a five-member City Council that, depending on its makeup, may be far less enthusiastic than the county about sewers, hotels and development in general.
The county has for months expressed interest in acquiring the six acres as the site for the sewer plant, which is to be the centerpiece of a proposed $43-million sewer system the county wants to build in Malibu.
But the site has been a lightning rod for controversy.
Residents of nearby Malibu Country Estates, a subdivision of million-dollar homes, complain that if the plant is built under their noses, it will hurt their property values. They have threatened to file a lawsuit to block it.
The property also is the subject of a dispute between Neville and Dallas, the sisters of the late real estate scion Merritt Adamson, and his widow, Sharon Adamson, who claims a one-third interest in the parcel. She contends that the sisters had no right to give it away. The squabble is part of a much larger court battle over the disposition of the family's $75-million fortune, which is expected to go to trial this summer.
As disclosed by The Times last week, Neville and Dallas offered to give away the land for the sewer plant and said they would try to get Sharon Adamson's cooperation.
Unable to get Adamson to relinquish her purported interest in the property, the sisters decided to give the land to the county anyway, and agreed not to object if the county found it necessary to acquire the property by condemnation.
County officials have acknowledged an arrangement with the sisters, but insist that they never agreed to an exchange of favors in order to get hold of the six acres.
"There is no quid pro quo," County Counsel DeWitt Clinton said Tuesday, in response to a question from Supervisor Ed Edelman. "If there were, that would be illegal, and we wouldn't have been involved in it."
Edelman said he wanted "to make it clear that my vote (to accept the gift) in no way indicates my support for any arrangement involving a hotel the Adamsons want to build."
Supervisor Pete Schabarum expressed a similar view.
"If I were the Adamsons, and I believed offering this property would result in the county's performing some kind of favor, I would have to be extremely naive," he said.
In her lawsuit against the sisters, Sharon Adamson contends that the parcel was among about $15 million in assets shared in common by her husband and his two sisters, rather than by the family company, and that the Adamson Cos. had no right to deal the property away.
Sharon Adamson's attorney has called the sisters' arrangement with the county idiotic, saying that they were attempting to give away a valuable piece of real estate "without . . . receiving so much as a snicker."
Although the supervisors voted to accept the gift, they have not formally approved the placement of the sewer plant there. Under the agreement with the company, the county has until July 1 to designate the sewer site or the offer becomes void.
Neither did the supervisors approve a redistribution of the tax assessment district for the sewer system on Tuesday, as had been expected. By law, four of the five supervisors must approve the tax assessment, and, with Supervisor Mike Antonovich absent, Edelman indicated he wanted more time to study the matter.
A revised assessment became necessary after the California Coastal Commission last November voted to reduce the capacity of the sewer system devoted to commercial users. Slow-growth advocates had complained that the larger system envisioned by the county would foster too much development in the civic center area.
As a result, would-be residential users now complain that they are being asked to pay up to 37% more than under the original sewer district, and have pressed the county to justify its data in increasing their rates.