TORRANCE — In this city that prides itself on tidiness, Christmas tree lots may have to abide by more regulations next season.
But tree sellers complain that they are already stringently regulated and warn that more rules will force tree prices to go up.
"We have had concerns for years," said David Ferren, the city planning director. He said temporary lots selling items like Christmas trees and pumpkins generally are governed by the same rules that affect permanent businesses, but they often don't obey them.
What's more, he said, tree operations set up in parking lots take up spaces needed for holiday shopping. "When we need to park the most, we have the least space," Ferren said, adding that access for emergency vehicles to such lots is sometimes obstructed.
Signs 'Scream Louder'
Other problems to be addressed by the "whole package" of possible new regulations are oversized signs and inadequate, possibly unsafe lights, Ferren said.
Temporary lots can set up larger signs that "scream louder," overshadowing signs of permanent businesses, he said. In addition, many lots set up shop before applying for a business license, officials said.
Under the city code, temporary sales lots are permitted to sell only products grown on the premises, Ferren said. But the rule--which was adopted when farming operations were more common--is generally ignored and the city issues licenses to lots that sell other products.
"For example, most Christmas trees are grown in Oregon. . . . We don't enforce that," Ferren said.
Critical of Officials
Torrance's plans angered several Christmas tree lot operators, who learned of the impending change when they applied for licenses this year. In interviews, they complained that Torrance already imposes many regulations on them.
"Torrance (officials) are the hardest people to work with," said Jim Roderick, manager of the Lyons Tree Farm on Crenshaw Boulevard. "They think the whole world goes around Torrance."
Another lot owner, Thomas Cottone, said he believes the city wants to run temporary businesses out of Torrance. "The city prefers big business," said Cottone, whose family has sold Christmas trees and pumpkins in Torrance for 25 years.
Officials denied that the city's intent is to eliminate temporary businesses. "There will be Christmas tree lots next year" in Torrance, Ferren said.
Roderick said some of the city's current regulations and fees are unreasonable.
Warns of Higher Prices
"It's cheaper to pay the fine rather than apply for a permit to fly some banners," he said. "I just wait until I get cited and pay the fine."
He warned that more regulations will mean higher prices for consumers. Already this winter, Christmas trees have gone up from an average of $6.50 a foot to $8 because heavy snows have made it difficult to obtain trees and to transport them from Oregon, he said.
Roderick said the Christmas tree market is volatile. He estimates that half of all tree lots lose money because market conditions are so unpredictable
"The trees have to be paid for in advance. For some sellers it may be $50,000 they have to have right up front," said Roderick, whose farm grows its own trees.
"We'll play ball with (the city) as long as we have to, because we don't want to get run out of business," he added.
Permanent Stand Denied
The Cottones' three lots pose an unusual problem for the city. Because they sell trees, pumpkins and strawberries, their lots are open several months a year, making them more like a permanent business.
The Planning Commission earlier this year denied a request by the Cottone family to set up a permanent stand for its seasonal sales because the business would, in effect, no longer be temporary.
To city officials, a tree or pumpkin operation is an anachronism, said Michael Shapiro, a Torrance attorney representing Cottone. "They obviously want the Cottones out."
"What do you think will bring the city more revenue, a farm or an office building?" he asked.
A group of Cottones' customers are soliciting signatures for a petition asking the city to allow the "continued business of the Cottones" in Torrance, Cottone said. He said 500 signatures had been collected by Thursday.
Temporary lots pay the city a $9-per-day business license fee in addition to 1% of the 6.5% sales tax they collect. The city has issued 16 business licenses to sell Christmas trees this year, but that number does not include stores that sell trees on their parking lots. Such stores also would be governed by the new regulations.
Ferren said the study should be completed by January or February.