Enviro group sues Malibu over La Paz EIR

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Santa Monica Baykeeper says the development project could adversely impact local waters, and city should wait till a centralized wastewater treatment system is installed. The developer’s consultant says the project’s high quality wastewater treatment system would be as good as hooking up to a centralized system.

By Olivia Damavandi / Staff Writer

Environmental organization Santa Monica Baykeeper has filed a lawsuit against the City of Malibu, challenging the city’s approval of the La Paz commercial development in the Civic Center for its “inadequate Environmental Impact Report.” City attorney Christi Hogin said the city has only received a notice of intent to sue, and that the La Paz development has not yet received final approval and will not until it is presented before the California Coastal Commission.

The lawsuit, which states the La Paz development violates the California Environmental Quality Act, has been filed under state law. It is not connected with the complaint filed in federal court by Santa Monica Baykeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council in March against the city over water quality issues, which has yet to be resolved.

In mid-November, the Malibu City Council approved both an 112,000-square-foot and a 99,000-square-foot version of the La Paz project. Both plans include a collection of retail, restaurant and office buildings ranging in size from 6,000 square feet to 17,000 square feet. The larger option requires the support of the Coastal Commission. The smaller one does not. The larger version includes a development agreement with Malibu La Paz Ranch, LLC offering to donate 2.3 acres of land and $500,000 to Malibu for “any municipal purpose,” including a wastewater treatment plant. The plan also includes a proposal to build a state-of-the-art septic system. However, in November, Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich asked the developers if they would be willing to scrap that idea and promise to hook up to a future municipal wastewater treatment system. A La Paz attorney had said this would not be possible because there was no guarantee when a city plant might be ready. But she left open the possibility that La Paz could hook up to a municipal system if the city were to build it quickly.

The Baykeeper complaint describes the larger project as involving the construction of 14 new buildings totaling 132,058 square feet. According to the petition, the larger project is expected to generate a demand of up to 43,370 gallons per day of wastewater, which, they say, exceeds the amount acceptable for septic tanks usage. The smaller project would construct 11 new buildings totaling 99,117 square feet. It would also involve the construction of an additional 475 parking spaces.

Santa Monica Baykeeper is suing the city over both projects.

Referring both to the lawsuit filed in March against the city and the one over La Paz, Tatiana Guar, a lawyer representing Santa Monica Baykeeper, said in a telephone interview Friday, “Both lawsuits are aimed at forcing Malibu to deal with their chronic water quality problems and violations of their Clean Water Act permit.”

In a press release e-mailed last week, Santa Monica Baykeeper said it closely followed the La Paz development throughout the planning process and submitted verbal and written comments to the city several times explaining how the EIR failed to meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, namely by “failing to provide a complete description of the development and failing to evaluate the environmental impacts associated with flooding, water quality and storm water in an area with proven chronic water quality problems, which remain unresolved to this day.”

According to Baykeeper, the City of Malibu ignored the advice, leaving the environmental watchdog with only one option-to sue the city in order to enforce California’s environmental protection laws.

Tom Ford, executive director for Santa Monica Baykeeper, said in a telephone interview on Friday that his greatest concerns are La Paz’s septic and stormwater discharges, which, he said, have the ability to contribute significant pollutants into the ground and therefore into the groundwater.

“In the case of the Civic Center area, the groundwater is directly connected to Malibu Creek,” Ford said. “At this point, there’s not enough in the EIR to assure me that this project as proposed could not have significant impacts on the water quality [of Malibu Creek].”

Gaur said she doesn’t see the logic in approving a new development before resolving the problems with existing water pollution in the Civic Center area. Guar advocated the construction of a centralized wastewater treatment plant, and said Malibu has not yet fulfilled its promise of building one.

“The city is supposedly serious about building a wastewater treatment plant and so we don’t understand why the city wants to allow the La Paz development to proceed before it builds the Civic Center centralized wastewater treatment plant,” Gaur said.

Don Schmitz, head of Schmitz and Associates, Inc., the development consulting and land-use planning company representing La Paz, said in a telephone interview on Friday that the construction of La Paz will yield the same outcomes, whether it is built now or postponed.

“The La Paz wastewater system will generate the exact same high quality wastewater as a sewage treatment plan would, and will disperse it in the exact same manner and location,” Schmitz said. “Accordingly, there is not substantial or relative difference between what was approved by the city for wastewater disposal and what would occur for La Paz with a future centralized sewer treatment plans.”

Guar also said the city is approving La Paz before the Civic Center area groundwater monitoring study is complete. Paid for by the city, the study is supposed to provide more information on the condition of groundwater in the Malibu Civic Center area.

“Why don’t they [the city] stop for a second and look at the whole area,” Guar said. “Everyone knows this area is rife with water quality problems that haven’t been addressed. And what are they doing? They’re adding more.”

When asked how the City of Malibu will respond to the lawsuit, Schmitz replied, “The city will respond factually. The public record is voluminous and it demonstrates quite clearly that it not only meets, but exceeds, the requirements of CEQA.”

Calls to City Manager Jim Thorsen, Senior Planner Stacey Rice, Environmental and Building Safety Manager Craig George and to the city’s Environmental Code Enforcement department were not returned. Rice was out of town.