Outside Room 1060 in City Hall, the neighbors from the Valley aren't happy. In fact, Mary Beth Schwartzenberger, Lori Lynn and the others are steaming — they're ripping into Carolyn Ramsay, chief of staff to Councilman Tom LaBonge, about an under-the-radar move to erect an often-deafening, potentially toxic fire station across from their modest homes in racially diverse, 1940s-era northern Sherman Oaks.
“This is a situation created by politicians!” Schwartzenberger barks.
“This was a situation created by Proposition J,” Ramsay responds with lawyerlike calm. She's referring to a 2006 measure whose fine print says the Los Angeles Fire Department can build fire stations on land comprising fewer than two acres.
Lori Lynn, a plainspoken woman, recognizes this response as a clever deflection and heatedly shoots back, “Don't lie to us!”
“We know what's really going on!” Schwartzenberger adds.
Residents' homes line the south side of Oxnard Street, 50 to 100 feet from the planned exit gate for blaring emergency trucks on Oxnard's north side. They apparently were left in the dark by Paul Krekorian, their councilman from 2010 to July 2012.
“I barely knew he was my representative,” says Tom Olsen, a video editor. Neighbors say Krekorian remained mum and made no outreach efforts over the major, multimillion-dollar project in their midst.
Through an aide, Krekorian refused to comment to the Weekly.
The project's location is several feet outside of what was then Krekorian's District 2, just over the line in City Councilman Tony Cardenas' District 6.
In a crass example of official secrecy, the Bureau of Engineering, LAFD and Cardenas (now in Congress) in 2009 began to plan a vast, 18,533-square-foot, $37.1 million fire station at Oxnard Street and Vesper Avenue. Residents got word just eight weeks ago, when it was all but a done deal.
Even in L.A., whose City Council has gained a troubling reputation for violating the due process rights of citizens during sham “public” hearings, and approving massive buildings that they had good reason to believe illegally sat atop a catastropic-level earthquake fault, the Sherman Oaks firehouse secrecy gambit has people bitter — and ready to lawyer up.
“No one from the city ever gave us notice or contacted us to ask what we thought,” says Jeff Lynn, Lori's husband.
Without a bothersome community to weigh in, the Bureau of Engineering deftly made the case for a “negative declaration” — a statement that no Environmental Impact Report was needed. The negative declaration skipped over the possibly contaminated land, which had been used between the 1920s and 1961 for auto maintenance and machining. These uses, in which ground dumping was common, imply the presence of solvents, degreasers and petrochemicals. An EIR would have required robust public notice and comment.
Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who represents Cardenas' former district on the north side of Oxnard, claims in an email, “The city actually conducted sampling far beyond what was required. Constructing this facility respects our health.” Perhaps.
But the city never released that “sampling,” and it kept the results out of its negative declaration. Jeff Lynn says: “There is no proof of [sampling]. And no evidence of it — [the] site is across the street from my house. We have asked for the documentation … and have received absolutely nothing.”
The neighbors envision a hellish environment, emergency sirens sounding at all hours. One family living about 50 feet away is raising a 12-year-old autistic boy; when they moved there in 2012, residents were unaware of the closed-door planning. “It's very typical of autistic kids and adults to be sensitive to noise,” his mother says. “I would have never bought this house if I knew about the fire station.”
At a recent Public Works committee meeting, Ramsay tried to pin four years of secrecy on Cardenas' departure for Congress in January, as well as the altering of the local council district's boundaries during redistricting on July 1, 2012. Neither of those events, in fact, explains things.
Ramsay insists, “The communication for this project was not what we had hoped it to be.”
Turning the tables, officials say the neighbors don't know what's good for them.
“It will ultimately benefit the neighborhood,” glibly insists Matt Szabo, a Board of Public Works commissioner. “It's a fire station, not a strip club.”
Ramsay, whose boss, LaBonge, now represents the homes previously represented by Krekorian, says LaBonge is trying to “rectify” the communications disaster after the fact. But, she adds, the neighborhood gains a clear “public safety benefit.”
That's not so clear. The area is not among those that has lacked for fire, health and emergency services.
Councilman Joe Buscaino, chairman of the Public Works committee, also blatantly ignores the bizarre failure to hold public hearings over the four years, peppily saying, “You don't even have to call 911. You'll just run across the street!”
The firehouse would replace Fire Station 39, the Valley's oldest, located in a tattered business district on Van Nuys Boulevard.
Jim Dantona, Cardenas' former chief of staff, insists the city sent via mail a “notice” about the plan. But neighbors got only an eleventh-hour “notice of intent” in June, saying the city planned to adopt the negative declaration — for a project long since hammered out and embraced by city bureaucrats and politicians. Jeff Lynn says LaBonge called a July 31 public meeting only because stunned residents were so outraged. At that meeting, Lynn says, “They were telling us this was going to happen.”
Dantona says the station would create “faster response times.” Battalion Chief Curt Klafta says it would help crews respond “without affecting businesses.”
But as L.A. Weekly reported Aug. 8 in its investigation “Mission Creep at the Fire Department,” LAFD's famously poor response times have far more to do with its outdated practice of using $200,000-per-year firefighters to handle low-end 911 calls and non-emergency tasks, dispersing firefighters into non-essential duties and thereby badly slowing response times.
The firehouse battle also illustrates how quickly a pro-neighborhood rabble-rouser can turn tin-ear City Hall insider.
Attorney Kevin James backed Eric Garcetti in the mayoral runoff, and Garcetti has awarded James a plum $130,000 job on the little-known Board of Public Works. Last month, James, the board's president, voted for the fire station. “We gave [the community] time to organize, and they did,” insists James, who delayed the board's hearing. “They brought very valid questions to the city, and the city adequately responded.”
Jeff Lynn, who is an attorney, declares: “Kevin James is full of shit.”
Lynn and neighbor Tom Olsen were forced into a mad scramble to organize neighbors and hire an expert. “We've been completely let down” by James, Olsen says.
That expert, Matt Hagemann, a former senior adviser for the Environmental Protection Agency, describes the negative declaration in almost laughable terms, saying city officials, unwatched by the public, didn't even bother to include in their report a basic “inspection” of the site or routine interviews as to its historic use. He says that if firefighters live on-site, they could be at “potential risk” from long-term “vapor intrusion” if old soils laden with chemicals are dug up during excavation for the firehouse.
The City Council has a penchant for lawbreaking when it wants to build things:
Last month, California's State Geologist fired off a letter warning the City Council not to approve the Millennium skyscraper, whose Hollywood site is believed to straddle a “rupture” fault, which — unlike L.A.'s common “shaking” faults — can open the earth and split buildings. By state law, L.A. must map the rupture fault and never build atop it, to avoid massive loss of life. The City Council ignored the law and approved the Millennium.
In 2012, in a highly unusual dressing-down, Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones ruled that the City Council had violated the due process rights of L.A. residents by approving a skyscraper at Hollywood Boulevard and Gower Street without having a clue about its parking effects after holding sham public hearings and approving a doctored parking study.
In 2009, a Superior Court judge ruled that the council had broken the law by voting in 2006 to exempt CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel from L.A.'s ban on new billboards. The council handed the billboard giants a sweetheart deal worth billions to erect 877 digital billboards citywide without public hearings. Every council member had taken money from billboard firms.
Regarding the firehouse, Jeff Lynn says, “We're hoping to get some redress without a lawsuit. But we're not going to sit still and take it.”