Last Summer, as part of the ongoing (yet slow-moving) Citywide zoning update process (an effort to get our zoning into compliance with our General Plan before the Plan expires), the City approved a new zoning code governing industrial areas. During the public discussions on the zoning, there were two major points of debate – live/work (which I wrote about a little bit here) and recycling facilities (which I never got around to covering). They adopted the new code back in June, which prohibits recycling centers within 300 feet of a residentially zoned area, and requires them to obtain a conditional use permit within 600 feet of residential. But they were not able to agree on how the recyclers should be regulated, and directed staff to hold public meetings on the subject to get stakeholder input, and then come back with a proposal to amend the new code based on the discussions there.
I’m sure that right about now, some of you are thinking “Yawn! This is the most boring thing V has ever written about. Who cares about the zoning code for recycling centers?” If you’re among this group, then you’re fortunate enough not to live near one, and probably don’t know anyone who lives near one either.
If, like many residents of West Oakland, you happen to live near a recycling facility, here’s the sort of thing you can expect to deal with on a daily basis. Beginning when the facility opens, you can sit at the window of your home and watch a parade of shopping carts pass through the neighborhood on their way to the facility. The recycler’s customer will rifle through you garbage and recycling containers multiple times a day. They will let themselves into your yard on a regular basis to hunt for recyclable metal.
Once the clients deliver their goods to the facility and receive payment, they will then spend the rest of the day loitering in groups around the neighborhood. They will eat and drink, then discard their waste wherever they find it convenient. Any time you want to take a walk down your sidewalk, you will have to navigate an obstacle course of shopping carts, dirty napkins, candy bar wrappers, empty chip bags, and discarded needles. Since there are no restrooms available, the loiterers will simply urinate and defecate on the street, on the sidewalk, in the park, or on your property.
Walking in or out at any hour of the day, you need to be prepared to confront groups of the recycler’s clients loitering on the sidewalk immediately in front of your home openly selling and smoking crack, and occasionally having sex. Homeless encampments will regularly establish themselves within a block or two of the facility. Eventually, the City or Operation Dignity will come to break up the encampment. Within days, another one will have sprung up on the next block.
In short, it’s a complete nightmare and turns your neighborhood into a total hellhole. If you try to do something about it and call the police, public works, or your Councilmember, you will be told basically that there’s nothing they can do for you. If you try to discuss the problems with the facility operator, your concerns will likely be ignored or dismissed. Perhaps the operator will promise to do something to address the way their clients impact the neighborhood “soon,” but none of the promised mitigations will ever appear. If you live in Dogtown, you can expect a self-righteous diatribe such as the following:
But now I think the question is, should we as a society deny the poorest in our community our garbage? They have been reduced to relying on affluent trash! Should we deny them that? In the 4th highest crime city in the country and in the neighborhood with the
highest crime in all of Oakland should we deny the poorest, many 3rd or 4th generation residents, the ability to pick up garbage and make a few dollars? I suppose it really falls down to a quality of life issue. The quality of life of the homeless, poor, unemployed and uneducated that are unwelcome in most of society, and now unwelcome in what is or was their home.
For some of you new to the neighborhood you should know Alliance Metals was given a SPECIAL RECOGNITION AWARD for our service to the community by the West Oakland District Council (neighbors association). This award was given in large part because of our active involvement in the community. Then Magnolia Row was built and all of our limited resources were shifted towards defending our existence.
You will either spend all your days being angry and frustrated about the intolerable conditions in your neighborhood and be thwarted in virtually every attempt to do a damn thing about it, or you will eventually just accept that that’s how things are, and try to ignore the blight as much as you can. It sucks.
Anyway. Staff came back with their proposal for new recycling center regulations at Tuesday’s Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, and here’s what they came up with:
- In CIX-1 and CIX-2 (the two zones that allow a mix of industrial and other commercial uses), recycling centers would be prohibited within 300 feet of a residential zone. A recycler located anywhere else in CIX-1 or CIX-2 would have to obtain a major conditional use permit to either open a new facility or expand an existing one.
- In IG (the zone reserved for heavy industrial uses), recyclers would be prohibited within 300 feet of a residential zone. Beyond 300 feet, they would be permitted outright (meaning no conditional use permit is necessary).
- No matter where they were located, recyclers would have to comply with a set of performance standards. In CIX-1 and CIX-2, these performance standards would be the absolute minimum requirement for obtaining a conditional use permit to open or expand, but the City is free to impose additional requirements along with any conditional use permit granted.
Okay, so the performance standards list is long and dry, you can read the whole thing on pages 23-25 of the staff report (PDF), but the basic idea is that they have to provide certain signage, have a wall around their facility, adequately maintain the facility’s appearance, comply with certain noise standards, engage with the community by sending representatives to two NCPC meetings a year, maintain a 24-hour hotline for neighbors to log complaints, and make those complaints available to the City.
So District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel showed up to Tuesday’s meeting to request some changes to the performance standards. Regular readers know that I’m not exactly a big fan of Nancy Nadel, but when it comes to what a recycling facility does to a neighborhood, the woman knows what she’s talking about. After all, living in Dogtown, she has to deal with all the aforementioned misery on a daily basis. She, very reasonably in my opinion, asked for:
- Signage prohibiting sleeping in front the facility.
- Regarding the noise aspect, she said that the Police Department had recently informed her that they do not own a decibel meter, nor have any officers trained in its use, and that we need to fund the purchase and training so the noise regulations can be enforced. (At another meeting later on Tuesday, Nadel said that she had since been informed that the officer who told her this was wrong, and that we do have those things.)
- Facility owned trucks should be stored within their walls, not in the public right of way.
- Representatives should be required to attend at least 6 NCPC meetings per year.
- Facility operators be required to pick up carts and trash within five blocks of the facility in every direction daily and pay for monthly homeless encampment clean-up.
District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner mostly seemed concerned about how difficult the clean-up requirements would be for the poor recyclers, who she apparently loves for no reason. Probably because she doesn’t have any in her district and has no idea what they’re like, so instead of asking questions about why such stringent clean-up expectations were necessary, kept comparing them to all the fast food restaurants in North Oakland and completely missing the point:
I don’t think they should pick up everything, but there is certain material that is…From doing the litter stuff, I know you can tell the Wendy’s and the McDonald’s. I’m sure – I don’t know enough about the recycling – but I’m sure they know what is their scrap versus what is someone else’s litter.
Both Jane Brunner and Larry Reid insisted that holding the recyclers accountable for cleaning up homeless encampments was unreasonable, and eventually staff suggested a compromise to Nadel’s proposed changes that would require facilities to have a litter management plan within 2 blocks, and remove shopping carts within 5 blocks, but not have any obligation to deal with homeless encampments.
When it came to attending NCPC meetings, Jane Brunner said that 6 meetings sounded like too much, and that if the recycler wasn’t causing any problems, they shouldn’t have to go. Eventually they agreed that the minimum requirement would be attendance at 2 NCPC meetings annually, but that if the neighbors had a problem with the facility, the NCPC could then request their presence at more.
The new rules (PDF) will be considered by the full City Council on Tuesday, and I hope that Nancy Nadel will make the case for the more stringent performance standards she had originally proposed then. Ultimately, the best possible thing that could happen for West Oakland is to move the damn recyclers out of the neighborhoods, but until that happens, we need to do everything we can to mitigate the way these facilities impact their neighborhoods. Because the people there now should not have to live like this.