Civic Center sewage treatment plan closer to reality

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Homeowners and environmental groups blast the agreement between the city and the regional water board for lack of public notice.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

The controversial plan to build several multimillion-dollar wastewater treatment facilities in the Civic Center area is one step closer to realization. The Malibu City Council Monday night voted 4-1 to approve a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and the regional and state water boards, despite outcry from residents and environmental groups that the public had not been given sufficient notice of the plan.

The MOU stipulates that wastewater treatment facilities be built in the Civic Center area in 2015, 2019 and possibly 2025. The agreement will go before the Los Angeles County Regional Water Quality Control Board at its July 14 meeting.

Brokered during several months of negotiation between Malibu City Manager Jim Thorsen and Sam Unger, executive director of the regional board, the plan encountered strong resistance from environmental groups who said the requirements were too lenient, and residents who said the plan was too stringent. Both sides, as well as Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich who voted against the MOU, said the public had not been given sufficient notification of the specifics of the plan. City officials posted the plan last Friday, giving stakeholders four days to study it.

The three-phase plan begins with primarily commercial properties in the Civic Center area. Phase 1 stipulates that a centralized wastewater treatment facility be built by November 2015. The facility is projected to cost anywhere from $32 million to $52 million, and would be paid for by an assessment district comprised of commercial and residential property owners. In Phase 2, a number of residential areas, including those in Serra Canyon, Malibu Colony and condo complexes along Civic Center Way, would have to hook up to another centralized wastewater treatment facility by 2019 that would be paid for by an assessment district.

The MOU seeks to resolve a standoff between the city and the regional and state water boards. In November 2009 the regional water board instituted a prohibition on septic systems in the Civic Center and central area of Malibu and drew up a two-phase plan for centralized wastewater treatment facilities in the area. The ban was approved and ratified in September 2010 by the State Water Quality Resources Control Board.

The MOU approved by the council includes a third phase, in which properties originally included in Phase 2 of the regional water board’s plan would not be required to hook up to a centralized wastewater treatment facility by 2019. The properties included in Phase 3 are Malibu Road, the Knolls residential area, HRL Laboratories, Our Lady of Malibu Church and School, Malibu Presbyterian Church and several residential and commercial properties on the east side of Sweetwater Mesa.

Construction of a centralized wastewater treatment facility for those areas is contingent on future water quality studies. If bacteria and nitrogen levels are found to be reduced in the Malibu Lagoon following the construction of the Phase 1 and Phase 2 wastewater treatment facilities, then the areas in Phase 3 will also have to form an assessment district to fund their own centralized wastewater treatment facility. However, if the studies show that water quality in the lagoon has not been improved by the Phase 1 and Phase 2 treatment facilities, the areas in Phase 3 will not have to fund their own treatment facility.

“It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s a very good plan,” Thorsen said.

Residents and environmental groups disagreed.

“We feel this definitely weakens the path set by the regional board a year and a half ago,” Kristin James, Heal the Bay’s water quality director, said.

James and Liz Crosson, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper, objected to moving some of the original Phase 2 properties to Phase 3, which, they said, they doubted would ever come about. They also objected to the item being publicly posted on a Friday, then voted on three days later.

Resident Steve Littlejohn urged the council to postpone the execution of the MOU due to the lack of notice. Littlejohn said he and his sister inherited property in the Malibu Colony area, and the septic ban was preventing them from selling it.

Ozzie Silna, treasurer for the Serra Canyon Property Owners’ Association, said he had received several calls from fellow homeowners who complained about the lack of notice.

“We know nothing about what’s going on here, what rights we do have [or] which of us are affected,” Silna said.

Unger said the wide variation of criticism proved the agreement was a fair compromise.

“You’ve heard in some cases that it’s too stringent, in others that it’s not stringent enough,” Unger said. “I think that’s a good indication that you have a well-negotiated plan.”

Ulich said she supported the MOU in theory, but that the lack of notice had left her “stunned.”

“In the seven years I’ve been on the city council, this is the single biggest issue, and to only have four days to get the public input is just wrong,” Ulich said. “I feel very strongly that we should do whatever we can to do more outreach to the public and give them time to digest it.”

City Attorney Christi Hogin said the MOU was not the same as a finalized contract.

“It’s an agreement, it’s a path forward, if you will,” Hogin said. “But it isn’t cast in stone.”

Hogin added that the assessment districts that were part of the plan had to be approved by a vote. If a majority of property owners in the assessment districts voted against funding the wastewater treatment facilities, Hogin said they would not be built.

Councilmember Lou La Monte said the plan should go forward.

“Of the options we have available to us, it’s the courtroom or this,” La Monte said. “As the science evolves, it may change some of these developments, but I think we should take advantage of this and try to avoid going to court.”