By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Spray-paint shops are as common as taco and burger stands along Burbank Boulevard from North Hollywood to the Verdugos, but their concentration is especially dense where Lankershim and Burbank connect. Here, in about a two-block radius, at least eight spray-paint booths are operated by businesses such as Lankershim’s Sunrise Metro Ford, which has two, or Burbank’s Oxnard Auto Repair, which has one.
A word of explanation: Spray-paint booths filter overspray from paints containing a number of toxic substances. According to regulations set forth by L.A.’s Department of Building and Safety and the South Coast AQMD, these booths are actually pieces of equipment that must operate within another enclosed structure. That’s because paints and other substances used by automotive refinishers contain diisocyanates, “the leading cause of occupational asthma,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site, not to mention solvents, like toluene and xylene. Toluene and xylene are not substances you’d want to breathe deeply. According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), they may induce headaches, dizziness, hearing and vision loss, birth defects, breathing difficulties, even death. On the bright side, ATSDR does not link toluene and xylene directly to cancer. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health does, however, list some forms of diisocyanates as potential human carcinogens.
In the recent past, a small percentage of automotive coatings have also contained hexavalent chromium (chromium six), made infamous by the film Erin Brockovich. Chromium six has been linked to cancer in humans by the EPA, as well as to asthma, kidney and liver damage, ulcers, nosebleeds, etc. High levels of chromium six have led to birth defects and reproductive problems in lab animals. In 1996, the South Coast AQMD prohibited the use of automotive coatings with hexavalent chromium. Statewide, the California EPA has given businesses a December 31 deadline to stop using the substance.
All of which concerns air quality along this stretch of Burbank Boulevard. Residents and business owners whose apartments, houses and businesses are near auto-body shops complain of noise and spray-paint smells, blaming the latter for everything from ear infections and asthma to temporary blindness and cancer. They cite instances in which shops have been spray-painting in the open, after hours, and without proper permits. Even when these auto-body shops comply with myriad state, regional and local regulations, they say the air they breathe is noxious.
For 30 years, Maria Fant has owned property on Martha Street, a tree-lined residential cul-de-sac running parallel to a string of auto-body shops on Burbank. She lived in her three-bedroom house there for two decades, until her doctor advised her to move because of her asthma, which she attributes to the area’s poor air quality. The semiretired actress now lives in Agoura, and rents the property when she can get a tenant, a process she says is difficult because of the nearby auto-body shops.
“It’s a nice property,” she laments. “I put a lot of money into the house, but it was impossible to live with that constant purgatory of scent. You can’t believe how bad it smells some days. I have to explain to tenants that the business is there legally. Last time, it took me a year and a half to get the property rented.”
Fant, vice president of the North Hollywood Residents Association, says she’s been fighting auto-body shops ever since they began moving into the neighborhood in the ’70s. She has letters from Martha Street residents dating to 1989. The letters complain of noise and pollution and assert that the auto-body shops belong far away from residents, a view Fant shares. “A lot of my neighbors have died from complications from breathing and heart problems. All these body shops should be in an industrial area, not mixed with residential. There’s no way we can have an arts district and an industrial area together. They’re not in harmony.”
It might not be a harmonious union, but it’s apparently legal. Jon Perica, a zoning administrator for the city, explains that the area is classified C-2. C-2 allows new auto-body repair facilities to exist alongside residences as long as they obtain a conditional-use permit through a hearing process, thus proving they are not a nuisance. But many auto-body shops predate such regulations, which Perica says began in the ’80s, and may have a grandfathered status.
“Common sense would say zoning next to residential should not allow auto repair,” says Perica. “But in older areas of the city, this kind of mix is common. There are clusters like this in Koreatown and the east Valley. Newer areas would have conditional use, and if adjacent to residential, we might not approve it.”
Perica admits efforts to upgrade the area over the last decade have begun focusing attention on a long-neglected problem. He suggests making the area’s zoning more restrictive. But relocating existing shops to a more industrial area would be unlikely without a massive outlay of capital and political will.
The concerns and complaints of Crew, Ferguson, Fant and others moved Perica to deny a conditional-use permit being sought by Alice Tajerian, landlord of 11323 Burbank Blvd., where an auto-body shop known as VAZ Auto and Body did business up until last year, and where an auto-body shop called Car Paradise has operated since last September. When Tajerian applied that same month for a permit that would allow Car Paradise to spray paint, Crew and Ferguson presented a videotape at the hearing showing workers at Oxnard Auto Repair and other Burbank Boulevard businesses painting in the open or in unenclosed spray booths without protective gear. The tape shows overspray clouds flowing from open doorways. Workers are seen smoking or using gas torches near flammable paint. The tape helped sway Perica toward denial of the permit.