SAN PEDRO — In a community that is spending millions of dollars to clean up its downtown and transform its waterfront into a major recreational and tourist attraction, scrap is a dirty word.
Scrap is noisy, scrap is dusty and, most of all, scrap is ugly--especially when it blankets 14 acres of freeway-front property at the gateway to the community.
But in a port that sees millions of dollars in goods come and go each year, scrap is also big business. Tons of scrap from businesses throughout Southern California are hauled to yards in the Port of Los Angeles, loaded on ships and sold to steel mills around the world.
In January, Hiuka America Corp. opened a scrap yard on a vacant lot at 2100 Gaffey St., just off the Harbor Freeway--the main artery into this harbor-front community. Ever since, hundreds of residents and harbor district Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores have been trying to get it closed.
"This is a port-related activity and should be done closer to the port," Flores said this week. "This site is the entrance to our seaport community."
Business leaders complain that the unsightly scrap yard gives a bad impression to tourists who use the freeway to get to San Pedro. Homeowners who live west of Gaffey, about half a mile from the scrap yard, complain that workers load scrap on ships late into the night, cut huge chunks of metal with loud machines, and continuously haul tons of the discarded metal into the yard.
"It has gotten to the point where we have to call residents and have to say, "This is going to be the weekend when the ship is here,' " said Sal Pardo of the Rolling Hills Highland Assn., a homeowners group near the scrap yard. "We tell them they might want to go somewhere else to sleep until the ship leaves."
Officials from Hiuka, who have met with homeowners about the complaints, say they have been good neighbors. They say they have rerouted some trucks, hosed down the lot to reduce dust, purchased quieter equipment, and piled huge stacks of scrap at the western edge of the yard to act as a sound barrier.
"We have been a good citizen and we have cooperated with the community," said Linda Bozung, an attorney for Hiuka. "We have spent a lot of money and a lot of time on this."
Residents acknowledge that Hiuka has made improvements, but the problems, they say, persist. Flores said the San Pedro community plan, which was adopted by the City Council before Hiuka opened its yard, specifically forbids junkyards at the site as visual blight. In developing that plan, she said, residents and the City Council intended to include scrap yards in the prohibition. City zoning officials, however, said scrap yards are treated separately from junkyards in the city code, and therefore do not fall under the ban.
In May, Flores took her objections and the neighbors' complaints to the city's chief zoning administrator, arguing that Hiuka has been processing--not simply storing--scrap at the Gaffey Street location. Under city zoning regulations, scrap can be stored at scrap yards, but it cannot be processed for remelting by steel mills and foundries.
In a report to Flores in June, Franklin P. Eberhard, chief zoning administrator, agreed that the yard is noisy and an eyesore, but disputed Flores' claim that Hiuka was illegally processing scrap. He said workers at the yard cut the scrap into five-foot chunks for shipping--not processing.
"While entirely sympathetic with your concerns regarding the operation of the yard, I must agree with the determination and action of the Department of Building and Safety in the issuance of the building permit for a scrap metal storage yard on the site," Eberhard wrote.
Unsatisfied, Flores took her case to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals, a citizen panel that considers zoning disputes. Flores said that if she could persuade the board that Hiuka should not be permitted to cut scrap at the Gaffey yard, the company most likely would move to a site closer to the port where processing is allowed.
But at a board hearing Tuesday, Flores and her harbor-area deputy, Ann D'Amato, presented the case against Hiuka--and lost.
With two of its five members absent, the board voted 2 to 1 to deny the appeal. Board members Ilene Olansky and James D. Leewong, who voted against Flores, said they were not convinced that Hiuka processes scrap at the site. Member Nikolas Patsaouras disagreed, arguing that cutting scrap into the five-foot pieces is the first stage of processing the metal for remelting.
The appeals board vote does not end the battle. If residents are able to persuade the two absent board members to listen to tapes of the hearing and join Patsaouras in voting for the appeal, the vote could be reversed. While acknowledging that that is unlikely, residents said they will ask the absent board members to review the tapes.