Landowners plead for city help in overriding fire department policy

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Approximately 45 Malibu property owners say they cannot build their homes unless they pay upward of $1 million for upgrades to an aging waterworks system. The developer claims the county fire department has imposed a “de facto building moratorium.”

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

Property owners whose building permits are being held up by a change in Los Angeles County Fire Department policy urged the Malibu City Council at its meeting Monday night to enact an urgency ordinance overriding the policy to allow their homes to be built.

The property owners complained that instead of being allowed to build onsite water tanks to fight fires, which the department had accepted for years as a mitigation measure for land with insufficient water flow, they were being asked to personally fund improvements to the overall waterworks system at a cost in excess of $1 million.

Developer Don Schmitz, who said he spoke on behalf of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce, told the council that the fire department’s new policy amounted to a “de facto building moratorium.” Schmitz asked for an urgency ordinance from the council that would override the fire department policy, and for a long-term capital improvement program to improve water facilities.

Valerie Alon, who is trying to build a house on Decker Edison Road, said that Waterworks District 29 officials asked her to pay $4.3 million to construct a new water system linking her property to Pacific Coast Highway, more than 9,000 feet downhill, otherwise she could not build.

“I feel like my property has been condemned,” Alon said. “I feel like it’s valueless if I can’t build anything on it.”

City Manager Jim Thorsen told The Malibu Times Tuesday that he doubted whether the city had the legal authority to issue an urgency ordinance in this case.

“You’re talking about overruling the fire department and the water district on their regulations, which I think would be very problematic,” Thorsen said.

He added that the matter would have to be reviewed by the city’s legal department “to see if that’s even possible.”

Thorsen said city staff had been working with the fire department and the water district to get an immediate resolution for property owners who are currently being impacted, as well as discussing a master plan to resolve the problem for the long term. He could not put a timetable on the immediate resolution for the affected property owners, but hoped a solution could be reached within 30 to 60 days.

Craig George, the building safety manager for the city, told The Malibu Times he estimated that there were about 45 homeowners who were currently being stalled by the new policy.

The policy change in question refers to water system flow at new sites. The fire department requires single-family homes to have access to water systems capable of pumping at least 1,250 gallons per minute for two hours. Due to Malibu’s aging water system, many new houses are not able to meet this requirement. The fire department generally used to allow water tanks as a mitigation measure until about a year ago. County Fire Marshall Roy Dull confirmed to The Malibu Times in a December article that the mitigation that was once allowed in extenuating circumstances is no longer acceptable.

“We are now complying with the codes more accurately,” Dull said.

Christopher Deleau, who works with Schmitz, told the council that Los Angeles County Waterworks Districts was essentially outsourcing its responsibility to update and maintain the Malibu water system to private property owners. Deleau said in the 51 years since the county bought the water system, it has provided practically no improvements to infrastructure built by the Malibu Water Company before 1960. Deleau estimated the cost of capital improvements to the system at between $150 million and $200 million dollars.

Deleau said that while the policy has mainly affected property owners seeking to build new homes, it would also prohibit any homeowners who wished to remodel their houses. That would drastically limit the ability of homeowners to make improvements to their properties.

Although the council was unable to take any action on the property owners’ request for an urgency ordinance because it was not on the meeting agenda, Councilmember Lou La Monte said, “District 29 has done a pathetic job” maintaining the water system.

City in dispute with Charter cable

Monday night, the city council voted to discontinue its cable television broadcasts due to a dispute with Charter Communications.

Charter wants to charge the city $900 per month for the broadcasts; it had previously allowed the city to broadcast for free. City officials believe that federal law requiring free public access should apply. Gregg Kovacevich of the city attorney’s office said, “To our knowledge, Charter is the only company to do this.” Kovacevich said Malibu should collaborate with other cities experiencing the same problem with Charter, before pursuing a course of action.

In other council actions:

– The city council approved a motion allowing the Malibu Water Quality Symposium to take place June 30 at the new Malibu City Hall. It also approved Legacy Park as the site for the city’s 20th anniversary celebration for March 27. The event will include live music, food and children’s activities.

– Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich spoke about her plans to organize a community art project called the “Porcelain Project.”

Ulich has enlisted local artists to transform 20 restroom fixtures (sinks, urinals, and toilets) that have been recycled from the Malibu Library reconstruction project into works of art. She wants to display the items at Malibu City Hall or the Landon Center, before auctioning them off on or near Earth Day, April 22.

“Whether we like it or not, the toilet is an integral part of our city’s history,” Ulich said.

Councilmember La Monte expressed some skepticism. “Not to use a pun, but I’m afraid we’re going to be the butt of every late-night talk show host’s jokes,” he said.

– The council authorized the Public Safety Commission to schedule a special meeting on a Saturday morning to conduct a three-hour public workshop about bicycling issues on Pacific Coast Highway. It approved overtime pay for the staff required to attend.

– Councilmember Laura Rosenthal said volunteers were still needed for the city’s Volunteers on Patrol (VOP) program. The city has said it will purchase a car for the VOP program if there are enough volunteers.

Volunteers would provide a minimum of 16 hours per month performing non-hazardous patrol duties such as monitoring traffic and parks. The theory is that VOPs will prevent crime by their mere presence in highly visible clothes and a City of Malibu vehicle.