City, agencies tackle turbulent relationship

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How the city can improve its relationships with various environmental and state agencies is a key topic in the upcoming city council election. Officials of the city and those agencies offer ways this can be done.

By Olivia Damavandi / Assistant Editor

Though two new members will soon be elected to the Malibu City Council, the city continues to grapple with an old issue: its tumultuous relationships with various environmental, and local and state governmental agencies.

The question of how the city can improve these relationships has recently been posed to Malibu City Council candidates in numerous public forums, making it a key topic in the upcoming April 13 election.

Since achieving cityhood in 1991, Malibu has battled a range of environmental and state agencies–namely, the California Coastal Commission, Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Santa Monica Baykeeper-over issues pertaining to its wastewater management, water quality, pollution, public access and city building code.

The agencies have persistently criticized the city for taking an inactive approach to improving those issues, and have commonly accused its residents of NIMBYism.

But the city has consistently defended itself against those criticisms. Many city officials and residents have said that Malibu is doing all it can to cater to public access and reduce pollution. They have also expressed resentment toward the agencies for trying to impose various development plans that they say jeopardizes public safety.

The most recent of such developments is the Malibu Parks Public Access Enhancement Plan proposed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and its sister organization, Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority. The plan, long opposed by Malibu residents who say it will increase the risk of fires, includes the creation of 71 overnight camping sites at Bluffs Park and Latigo, Ramirez, Escondido and Corral canyon parks.

All five parks targeted for overnight camping have, in recent years, been burned or threatened by a wildfire. Though the proposed plan would prohibit campfires, residents doubt the extent to which that rule would be enforced and have pointed out that the plan’s draft environmental impact report does not include any enforcement measures.

SMMC and MRCA Executive Director Joe Edmiston, however, has said that Malibu residents are opposed to the plan because they are NIMBYs.

In response to what actions the city could take to improve its relationship with the SMMC and MRCA, Edmiston in a phone interview last week said, “I’m not the person to ask about that. That’s up to the citizens of Malibu, not up to me. I think anything I said would be viewed as self-serving.”

Mayor Sharon Barovsky recalled the city’s relationship with the SMMC, and said the tension developed years ago when the conservancy first proposed the plan.

“We were at one point very close to a settlement [with the SMMC on the overnight camping plan] that most of the neighborhoods thought was good,” Barovsky said Tuesday during a phone interview. “Then the fires hit and nobody even wanted to use the word ‘camp.’ And I think emotions were so high that statements were made by some community members that alienated the conservancy a lot. But now that the fires have died down, I think it’s time for everybody to sit down again and see if we can come to some reasonable solution.”

She added, “I recently attended a meeting where I heard one of the city council candidates say he thought the overnight camping sites should be moved to Westward Beach,” Barovsky said. “Pushing the camping from one neighborhood to the next is only putting neighborhood against neighborhood. I don’t think it solves the problem by playing a shell game with campsites.”

The plan’s draft EIR will be reviewed in the upcoming months by the Coastal Commission, which has already approved development permits for the project. Calls made to the Coastal Commission last week were not returned by the time this paper went to print.

Numerous residents, including Malibu City Council candidates Steve Scheinkman and John Mazza, have threatened lawsuits if the plan, as proposed, is approved by the Coastal Commission. The other council hopefuls have recommended negotiation over litigation. Candidate Laura Rosenthal, for example, at a public forum earlier this month suggested that the city and the SMMC contribute funds allocated for litigation toward the implementation of full-time park rangers.

To sue, or not to sue, will also be a key question in the city’s battle against a septic system ban in the broader Civic Center area, proposed by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The matter is pending review by the State Water Resources Control Board, against which the city could file a lawsuit if the septic ban is approved.

The ban was approved last year by the RWQCB due to its staff’s assessment that septic systems are the leading cause of pollution in Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach.

The cause of the pollution has been hotly debated for the past decade, during which time the city has been conducting various tests to determine it. But RWQCB Chair Mary Ann Lutz last week said the septic prohibition highlighted the friction between the city and the water board, which has long urged the city to implement a centralized wastewater treatment facility, or sewer, in the Civic Center area.

“We’ve been going through that game of waiting for test results for 10 years now,” Lutz said in a phone interview. “You can always schedule more tests, but at some point you have to say, ‘Let’s go with the information we have right now and move forward.’ Malibu can do testing forever, and that was the fear that we had.”

As far as how to improve the relationship with the RWQCB, Lutz said, “It’s actually a simple answer. Say what you’re going to do, and do what you’re going to say. The first thing [the city] needs to do is make [the construction of a sewer in the Civic Center area] a priority. What they’ve done in the past is they’ve said it’s a priority and that they want to do it, but it hasn’t gotten done.”

City Councilmember John Sibert acknowledged Malibu’s past resistance to implementing a sewer, but said that mentality no longer exists.

“The city has dragged its feet in the past,” Sibert said last week Friday during a phone interview. “There has been an attitude, no question about it, that we’re going to control development by not building a centralized wastewater treatment system. Lots of people think that way, but the city and the city staff doesn’t think that way. We’re working on it, we really are.”

Sibert said the process of implementing a sewer is being stalled not by pending test results to determine the cause of the pollution in the Malibu watershed, but by the drafting of a mandatory $2.3 million environmental impact report for the project and by the absence of a site to house it.

“We’re paying for the past sins that the city has done, but I think we’re really moving ahead,” Sibert said. “I don’t know of any other city that’s spending as much money per capita to clean water as Malibu is.”

Sibert also added that the wastewater management issue in the Civic Center has overshadowed the city’s efforts to clean water throughout other parts of the city such as Ramirez Canyon, Paradise Cove and Legacy Park.

Legacy Park, however, has been the target of criticism from numerous environmental groups including Santa Monica Baykeeper, which last year filed its third lawsuit against Malibu over water quality issues.

In that lawsuit, which was dismissed in December, Baykeeper claimed the city-approved Legacy Park Project violates state law by failing to meet water quality standards and by failing to adequately treat sewage, or wastewater, generated in the Civic Center area.

The city, however, claimed that while plans to implement a wastewater treatment facility by 2013 are underway, the Legacy Park Project will provide storm water management to substantially reduce pollution in Malibu Creek, Malibu Lagoon and Santa Monica Bay.

The $50 million, 15-acre Legacy Park, located along Pacific Coast Highway at Webb Way, will double as a storm water treatment facility. It was originally intended to treat wastewater as well, until the city in 2007 concluded from initial planning studies that it was not large enough to do so.

Baykeeper Executive Director Tom Ford declined to comment on this story.