The voted 4-1 Monday night in favor of a deal with the Regional Water Quality and State Water Resources control boards to modify Malibu's Civic Center Area septic system ban that was approved in 2009 (Regional Water) and 2010 (State Water). The agreement includes an adjustment to the number of phases to rid the area of septic systems and hook up the properties to a sewer system from two to three. However, the third phase may never happen.
Proponents of the original plan, including several local environmental groups, told the council the deal had weakened the prohibition's ability to curb pollution of Malibu Creek and Malibu Lagoon. Some opponents of the prohibition restated their arguments that it was based on bad or outdated science. Also, they said it could harm property values.
Both sides agreed that there had not been enough time to study the agreement, which was placed on the city's website Friday afternoon, just three days before the meeting. This was the reason for Council member Pamela Conley Ulich's opposition to the deal.
The prohibition is based on the concept that Malibu's septic systems pollute the watershed. City officials were among those who told the water boards at the 2009 and 2010 hearings that this was based on outdated science. When the State Water board approved the prohibition last fall, the chair demanded Jim Thorsen and Regional Water Chair Sam Unger meet to make modifications.
"Of the options that we have available to us, which are basically courtrooms or this, I think this is definitely a smart way to start,” said Council member Lou La Monte of the modified prohibition.
La Monte and others on the council looked to the fact that this deal could be changed in the future because it is not a legal settlement, but rather a Memorandum of Understanding, which Christi Hogin said was not set in stone.
The portion of the original plan calling for commercial businesses in the area to get rid of septic systems by 2015 remains unchanged. Other properties—homes in Serra Canyon and Malibu Colony, the condo complexes along Civic Center Way, Adamson House, Surfrider Beach restrooms, and —would need to comply by 2019.
Among the properties included in the new third phase are homes on Malibu Road and Malibu Knolls, HRL Laboratories, , , and several residential and commercial properties on the east side of Sweetwater Mesa. They would need to comply by 2025, but only if it were determined the first two phases of the prohibition were successful at reducing bacteria and nitrogen pollution of the lagoon.
Even if the third phase were given the OK, city and Regional Water officials could determine some properties do not need to comply if officials have "demonstrated [the properties] have no contribution to bacteria or nutrient impacts to Malibu Creek and Malibu Lagoon," the agreement states.
Kirsten James, Heal the Bay's water quality director, told the council the testing method laid out in the agreement made it so "these studies are highly unlikely to demonstrate anything." She was doubtful the third phase would ever go into effect.
"We don't think this Memorandum of Understanding will lead us to the water quality improvements that we are looking for in the lagoon and at the beaches," said James, whose opinion was shared at the meeting by representatives from Santa Monica Baykeeper and the Surfrider Foundation.
James was also joined in opposition by owners of properties located within the prohibition boundary, but for different reasons. Ozzie Silna, treasurer for the Serra Canyon Property Owners Association, said people in his neighborhood should not be forced into the system because, he said, they do not contribute to the watershed pollution.
"I haven't received one phone call from anybody that says, 'we want you to support this entire process,'" Silna said. "Everybody says, 'don’t let them go forward. Even if we have to sue them, we'll join the suit.'"
Malibu Road attorney Joan Lavine recently filed a lawsuit against the Regional and State water boards over the prohibition.
Silna and many others talked about a study by John Izbicki of the United States Geological Survey in conjunction with the city that found the fecal bacteria in the lagoon came from birds, not humans. The study was previewed at a council meeting in April and an eight-page report appears on the USGS website. The study itself is expected to be released soon.
Mayor John Sibert said this study does not tell the whole story.
"But [the prohibition] is not only about bacteria," he said. "It is about other nutrients. And it is important to recognize we have to deal with that."
The properties in the prohibition zone would need to hook up to what Thorsen has called a "centralized wastewater treatment facility." The system, which Thorsen said could cost up to $52 million, would be funded mostly through assessment districts formed by the property owners that hook up to it. If a majority of the owners do not approve one or all the districts (the properties in each phase would likely form separate districts), the city could explore other funding methods, Hogin said. She said that an assessment district rejection could also be "catastrophic," and could be a reason why the agreement would have to be readdressed.
Norm Haynie, a local developer and consultant to other developers, said building the sewer would be a mistake. He said a better option would be installing advanced onsite wastewater treatment systems on each property (some already have them).
"Money is scarce," Haynie said. "People are starving in this country. People are hungry. Do we just throw away $35 to $50 million dollars because—why? Because we made a decision based on bad science?"
This was a contrast to the opinion stated by Council member Jefferson "Zuma Jay" Wagner, who said a sewer "is an effective way to help with our clean water initiatives here at the city."
"We need to do this," Wagner said. "We need to step up, and we need to face the facts that we need to treat our water, which is right near water tables, right near the lagoon, right near state beaches and county beaches and private properties."
Many people were troubled by the limited amount of time they had to study the deal. Thorsen said its public release came late because he and Unger were still working on the document "up to the last minute." Thorsen added that he meets with various stakeholder groups on an almost monthly basis. Although they had not seen the final map, they had received information about the progress of the negotiation toward an agreement.
Thorsen advised the council against delaying a vote on the agreement because this would force the Regional Water board to postpone its July 14 vote on the deal since the council does not meet again until late July. He said it "was critical to keep moving forward." Conley Ulich disagreed.
"In my seven years plus that I've served on the City Council, this is the single biggest issue," she said. "And to only have four days to give the public input is just wrong."