Sticker shock sets in for Trancas homeowners

Accusations flew at Monday’s City Council meeting over a $17.4 million neighborhood-funded utilities project to upgrade the fire water system in Malibu’s Trancas Highlands area, with several residents saying the cost of the project could force them to sell their homes. The residents also claimed the results of a straw poll intended to gauge neighborhood opinion on the project were rigged.

A city-contracted engineer estimates some Trancas parcelowners would have to pay as much as $274,000 plus interest for completion of the project.

“Everyone thought it was going to [cost] $50,000 per homeowner,” 30-year Trancas resident Art Mortell told the City Council. “But with these costs I probably have to sell my home.”

With interest factored into an optional 30-year repayment plan, a 5-6 percent annual interest rate could drive up the end figure to more than $600,000 per parcel. Alternatively, a parcel owner could avoid interest and choose to front the cost as soon as an assessment district forms.

Several residents also alleged at the meeting that Eric Myer, a leader of the Trancas Homeowners Association (HOA), rigged an April straw poll vote intended to gauge neighborhood opinion on the water system upgrade.

Myer did not attend Monday’s meeting but on Tuesday denied accusations that he and other HOA leaders have been less than transparent throughout the project’s trajectory.


“The straw poll was sent out to all parcel owners … we wanted as many people to respond as possible so that we could really get a sense of how to structure the actual ballot for this project,” Myer said. “We told people if you don’t want this, we need to know that as much as if you do want it.”

Myer refused to disclose the final tally of straw poll to The Malibu Times, but said “more than 60 percent” of 65 parcel owners in Trancas voted in favor of the project. Per an agreement with the city, the HOA needed a simple 50 percent majority to continue on with the plans.

Myer said he did not know why the group of concerned residents thought the project would cost $50,000 to each parcel owner, though residents told the council the $50,000 figure had been mentioned at dozens of community meetings since this project was first discussed more than 10 years ago.

“The $50,000 was just drawn out of thin air… we took great pains to not say anything about the cost because we didn’t know what it would end up being until we all found out in March,” Myer said.

Mortell and approximately 10 other Trancas residents urged the council to hold a public hearing and allow for more discussion of the project.

City officials, however, plan on staying out of the feud and said the neighbors need to handle the internal dispute on their own.

“This is not [a project] that the city started,” Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal said. “We’re … the agency the HOA is using to form the assessment district that will eventually vote on whether they want to go forward with this.”

“Ultimately, [the homeowners] get to decide what their fate is,” said City Manager Jim Thorsen.

The idea to form a neighborhood assessment district arose out of a dire need for better fire protections in Trancas, where most homes rely on private wells and individual storage tanks supplied by water trucks every day. Homeowners approached the city in 2002 about funding the project if the city agreed to be the agency to carry out the large-scope system overhaul.

Mortell said he is among many retirees in Trancas who live off of retirement plans, Social Security and other methods of fixed income, and supported the plan up until two months ago, when the cost estimates came in.

“Behind the scenes, people in the neighborhood have been told that if you can’t afford to pay for this project, you can’t afford to live in Malibu,” he said. “That’s just not true.”

Myer sympathized with Mortell and others, but sees no way around the upgrade.

“It’s a tough situation. The alternative is for this project not to happen, and that’s unacceptable,” Myer said. “We are proving a major public safety issue on our own dime…It’s a challenge and I wish there were a better way to structure this so we could get a good price, but this is it.”

Mortell said he and the other opponents plan on meeting in the next few weeks to figure out their next steps. Meanwhile, City Manager Jim Thorsen said plans to officially for the assessment district must go to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for approval within the next six weeks, after which the proposal should come back to the City Council.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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