Officials cite financial and emotional grief stemming from a septic tank crackdown in outlying areas that drew a sharp backlash. Calabasas plans to abide by impending new, simpler state rules.
By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
January 21, 2012, 7:03 p.m.
Calabasas officials say they plan to flush a controversial septic tank inspection program this week after a two-year battle with residents living in the affluent city's rural outskirts.
Citing widespread financial and emotional grief, City Council members say they will vote Wednesday to rescind rules that targeted owners of hillside houses with backyard septic systems. The city will instead abide by new and simpler state rules that are due to be adopted this summer.
"My own personal preference is to be rid of this and take this onerous thing and throw it in the trash where it should have been in the first place," Mayor James Bozajian said about the city's septic policy. "There are consequences to taking actions that interfere with people's homesteads. The council should hopefully learn from this."
The city's septic crackdown began in mid-2010, and quickly generated ill will. Residents complained that inspectors entered their property unannounced and seized the opportunity to write them up for a variety of other costly building code violations.
They also complained that enforcement officials were spying on them and that the city refused to recognize grandfathered construction permits issued by the county before the city's incorporation in 1991.
Those residents who were caught up in what they call the city's septic "raids" are still bitter about the experience.
Robert Hahn, 66, of Old Topanga Canyon said a 17-member city inspection team "climbed over my house like ants" while supposedly investigating an evicted tenant's complaint about a sewage smell.
Hahn said mandated upgrades to his property would cost $275,000 and require him to tear down three-quarters of his home of 33 years, which was built as a hunting lodge in 1925. In December he learned that the city was asking the court to place his house in receivership because of the alleged building code violations.
A neighbor, retired contractor Chester Allen, 82, complained before his death last year that the city had sent him a 30-page complaint demanding improvements to his 1939 house that he estimated would cost $50,000.
Lloyd Smith, a 71-year-old retired Los Angeles Zoo animal keeper whose family settled on his ranch property in 1910, was told that city officials suspected his septic system "may be unlawfully disposing of human waste" into a dry stream bed that eventually feeds into Malibu Creek.
Smith, who was hospitalized for a stress-related ailment he said was caused by the surprise raid, denied that his septic tank ever leaked or polluted the stream. "We're a founding family out here. We are being treated like common criminals," he said.
The city lists about 120 septic systems in operation. Thirty-one of them are suspected to have problems and 11 are categorized as "failed" by the city. Those violations will remain on the books and will not be removed even after the city rescinds the policy, said City Atty. Michael Colantuono.
"We now have documented that systems have failed," Colantuono said. "The regional [water quality] board has been reading newspapers. They know it's documented."
Opponents of the enforcement action have suggested that the rural crackdown was an excuse to extend municipal sewer lines into the mountains so new luxury housing developments could be built. They questioned whether the backyard septic systems were actually overflowing and fouling streams.
Last April, two incumbent council members who had supported the septic policy declined to seek reelection. Hours before the pair left office, an enforcement team visited Old Topanga Canyon resident Shelly Palmer's 87-year-old home.
"It's a land grab. There's a wealthy billionaire developer who wants to put some mansions on top of the hill and needs sewers to do it," Palmer, a real estate agent, said at the time.
At least one developer had earlier filed plans to build large homes just outside city limits a short distance from Palmer's house.
After the new council members were seated, the council scrapped a controversial plan to extend a sewer line into Old Topanga Canyon. Members of the new majority made it clear they favored the city stepping back from its inspection program. They commissioned a study conducted by the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy's Davenport Institute. It reached the same conclusion earlier this month.
Pete Peterson, the institute's executive director, said his analysis concluded "there are a lot of broken relationships here" between city staff members and residents.
There are other unresolved issues as well. The city is also seeking to recover about $30,000 in court and legal expenses from rural residents such as Toby Keeler who filed a cross-complaint against Calabasas to fight the septic policy.
City Manager Tony Coroalles labeled the residents' court filing "a frivolous lawsuit."
"They still consider us 'Dogpatch,'" said Keeler, 66, who has lived in Old Topanga for 30 years and whose septic tank was labeled a "public nuisance" by the city even though it later received a 10-year operating permit.
"They've wasted thousands more in taxpayer dollars hounding compliant homeowners," he said. "City government is supposed to help and serve residents, not attack and terrorize them."