HAWTHORNE — The city's fire chief has stopped approving building permits in a real-estate boom area, fearing that a substandard water system would not be adequate to put out a fire.
"I recognize that this is a drastic action," Chief of Fire Services Ralph A. Hardin said in a report to the city manager, "but I believe that my responsibility to the life safety of the present and future residents of this area makes it mandatory."
Existing zoning would permit the construction of 1,000 units in an eight-block area, more than triple the current density.
In addition to that neighborhood, Hardin said, the Fire Department is checking other sections of the city for substandard water systems to take preventive action before other building spurts begin.
Always Below Standard
The moratorium area is bounded by El Segundo Boulevard, Yukon Avenue, Doty Avenue and railroad tracks owned by the Southern Pacific Transportation Co.
The area's water system was below standard from the beginning 35 to 40 years ago when small single-family houses went up, the chief said. Twenty years later, some three- and four-unit apartments were built but no improvements to the water system were made then or afterwards.
Most of the fire mains are four-inch-diameter cast-iron pipes, which because of their age, rust and encrustation of deposits now function like pipes with a two-inch diameter--passing only one-fourth the volume of water of a four-inch pipe. In addition, hydrants are spaced too far apart.
"But there is no value in adding new hydrants to old four-inch mains. The flows are so low that they are nearly useless," the report said.
No Present Danger
For people already living in the area, "I would not characterize it as a dangerous situation," Hardin said in an interview. But, he said, the department might have to use a second engine company to bring additional water to a fire in the interior of the area, where water pressure is lower than from hydrants on the perimeter.
The area is zoned R-3, which permits 49 units per acre. Developers recently took out five building permits for three-story apartments, each with seven units on residential lots. Several other seven-unit projects are in the planning stages, the chief said.
"This area is so hot that if we don't do something, we will be two-thirds developed in a year. All at once, it is exploding," the chief told the City Council at a meeting Monday.
In the past 18 months, 1,200 apartment units have been issued permits, are under construction or have been completed in Hawthorne, officials said. They said the city is attractive to builders because it has good air quality, big employers nearby and lower land prices than beach cities.
The development in the moratorium area is taking place on lots with 50 feet of frontage, one at a time. The chief said this makes it impossible for fire officials to require developers to put in major water system improvements--a requirement they might impose on larger developments. The council's discussion Monday centered on a special assessment for the entire area to build a new water system, a search for outside funding to replace the system, and negotiations with the Southern California Water Co., which serves the area, to upgrade its system.
The city staff was directed to return to City Council with options.
James Mitsch, the city's chief of general services and public works, said he would prefer to avoid working with the Southern California Water Co., which he said has "a 350-step" approval process.
"If we have to deal with Southern California Water, we are facing a lot of delays," he said.
Parallel System Suggested
Mitsch suggested that the city put in a parallel system of water mains.
Roscoe Anthony, senior vice president of the water company, said he was unaware of problems in Hawthorne. "I never heard about it," he said. "It would seem to me that they would have the courtesy to let us know. . . .
"They were making disparaging remarks about us? . . . All I can say is that we will contact them and find out what they are talking about."
At the meeting, investor Heidi Gardana questioned whether she would be permitted to go ahead with plans to develop 12713 Fonthill Ave. After consulting with other city officials, Hardin told her that the application for a building permit, which was "in the pipeline," would be approved.