WILMINGTON — Every weekday morning, Gloria Vargas packs her two children and four of their friends into her station wagon and drives them about a mile and a half to Holy Family Grammar School in east Wilmington.
One of her regular routes, she says, takes her east on Pacific Coast Highway, south on Sanford Avenue, and then three blocks to the private Catholic school on Robidoux Street.
But for the past month or so, Vargas has been driving several blocks out of her way. Vargas says she doesn't want to go near Sanford when she has children in the car.
"We all wear seat belts, but the car shakes when the trucks go by," Vargas said last week. "I worry about the safety of the children. It is even worse for the parents that drive by in small vehicles filled with kids."
Sanford, a two-lane street in a predominantly residential neighborhood, has become a thoroughfare for trucks hauling cotton to a warehouse owned by Swift Transportation Co. at Sanford and Pacific Coast Highway. Swift moved last month to the eight-acre site--for 32 years a Bemis Co. paper-bag factory--after 12 tumultuous years on a smaller lot about a 10 blocks away on McFarland Avenue.
At its old location, Swift had been the target of continual complaints from residents and city officials for parking trucks on residential streets and for operating into the early morning hours. Last month, the Los Angeles city attorney's office began looking into allegations that the company has violated a 6-year-old agreement with the city that prohibits the trucking company from operating between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., city officials said.
Now that the company has moved to the Bemis location--which is about twice the size of the McFarland site--residents and members of nearby Holy Family Catholic Church have bombarded Los Angeles City Hall with new complaints about noise, dust, speeding trucks and trucks blocking Sanford and several intersecting streets.
"The other day we had a funeral at 10 o'clock, but when the trucks passed by, I had to stop the service because the noise was so great," said Father Luis Valbuena, who heads the 10,000-member Holy Family parish. "These people had enough pain without this."
For the cotton industry, the winter months are the peak season, meaning 20 or more trucks stuffed with bales destined for Japan, Korea and Taiwan file into the Swift facility every day. The cotton is unloaded from the trucks, transferred to containers and hauled to ships in Los Angeles Harbor for export.
Jerry Moyes, president of the Arizona-based company, said last week that Swift bought the old Bemis factory to enlarge its operations so trucks would not have to park on residential streets. He said the company is striving to be a good neighbor, and attributed the recent wave of complaints to "transitional" problems during the move.
"There was mass confusion and a lot of equipment moving," Moyes said. "We had 350 truckloads to move from one facility to the other in approximately 20 working days, in addition to our other daily business. I am asking the neighborhood to bear with us."
As part of Swift's good-neighbor campaign, the company has applied for a permit to build a loading dock on the northwest corner of the old Bemis factory near some Santa Fe railroad tracks and Pacific Coast Highway. Moyes said the new dock would allow the company to shift operations from docks on the east side of the building along Sanford and move the noise, dirt and congestion farther from residential areas.
The application received routine approval from the city's Planning Department, but Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents Wilmington, appealed the decision. Flores has argued that the trucking business, while located in an industrial zone, is not compatible with neighboring residential areas and should be relocated elsewhere in the community, perhaps in the Wilmington industrial park.
At a hearing last week on the loading dock application, Nelson Hernandez, Flores' Wilmington deputy, labeled Swift as "one of the biggest problems" in Wilmington and accused the company of ignoring neighbors' concerns when it was located on McFarland.
"They have been bad neighbors in the past, and we have no reason to believe they will be good neighbors in the future," Hernandez said later in an interview. "We want them out of there."
Jan. 29 Hearing
About 40 residents, including a representative from Holy Family Church, joined Hernandez in opposing the application, which will be considered by the Planning Commission on Jan. 29 at the San Pedro Municipal Building. Last week's hearing was held by Paul Beard, a hearing examiner who will make a recommendation to the commission.
Hernandez said Flores realizes she cannot force the company to leave, so he proposed that the Planning Commission impose a series of conditions on the loading dock permit.