By Raymond R. Beltran
Ask Benjamin Jingco, manager of B&J Motor and Body Shop on 14th St and Coolidge Ave, if his eighteen year business is vulnerable to rezoning measures in Old Town National City, and he’ll gladly brandish his permits from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Automotive Repair, and his business license along with an explanation of how his business has been recognized, by the courts, as “grandfathered in”, exempt from rezoning persecution on the westside.
Ask him how National City’s new amortization ordinance could affect the shop if B&J is deemed as “non-conforming” in the area, and he’ll still happily say, “We don’t have to move.”
As zoning in his Old Town neighborhood is identified (Light Manufacturing/Residential), he’d be right.
The ordinance applies to all businesses in the city that do not conform to their current zoning classification. For instance, an auto body shop in an exclusively residential neighborhood would be vulnerable to a phase out process through amortization. Though right now, in Old Town, that’s not the reality.
For many who championed amortization in National City, mainly Old Town residents who’ve endured decades of health issues, they believe it is a step towards phasing out toxic businesses they’ve shared the neighborhood with for far too long.
But for now, who’s “non-conforming”? And who makes the call?
Claudia Silva from the city attorney’s office says that until Old Town’s zoning changes to R for residential, industrial businesses in West National City are within their right to to do business in the neighborhood.
Not to say this ordinance is pointless for Westside families. But as the current zoning stands, it bears no consequences for businesses who contribute to health hazards in Old Town, leaving the community wondering if this is just political grandstanding or will the politicians act to change the zoning laws.
And to act would require implementing legislation leading to what families have been advocating for the passed few decades, a cleaner environment to live in. To do that, Old Town would have to rezone to residential and 133 industrial businesses would face a “phasing out” process.
“It will be the legislative body who will determine that process,” says Silva. “It will not be a complaint driven format.”
Amortization, says Councilman Ron Morrison, includes a process that researches a business’s history and affects in the community, as well as its total value, in order to determine a reasonable amount of time, 1 year minimum, which a business has to either change its trade, or relocate.
For now, the ordinance is a tool, but without a handle on which to grasp for a striking blow.
Almost three quarters of attendees at Tuesday’s council meeting were Westside residents wearing the Environmental Health Coalition’s turquoise shirts because, as many attested to, the asthma rate for children in their neighborhood has reached fourteen percent.
Adriana Alfaro, Old Town resident, has been a promotora (an EHC neighborhood organizer) for over a year and became involved after complications with her children, ranging from four to ten year olds, began to cost her five member family a considerable amount of time and money.
Her family balances on a $30,000 income per year, and medication relating to asthma, at times, can cost up to a thousand dollars per emergency at any given time. The family functions without health insurance.
Irma Tranquilino shares the same experience with Alfaro, spends the same amount of money on medical expenses, and is a promotora as well. “It unites us, the community, that toxins are taken out of residential neighborhoods,” she says.
Both women state that their economic status hinder them from leaving the neighborhood, but if given the opportunity to relocate, they’d decline anyway because they’ve already created homes in Old Town.
“I have a sentimental connection to this community,” says Tranquilino. “It’s better to unite with people to make this a better place to live.”
Hospital visits, say both women, can vary from four to five hours each time.
La Prensa San Diego researched this particular neighborhood in 2003 (Searching for Balance in Old Town) and reported that according to Environmental Protection Agency findings, motor vehicles, factories, and industrial businesses are the direct cause of particulate matter 2.5, a microscopic variety of particles in the air small enough to be inhaled into a person’s lungs. They also found West National City is an area toxic enough to cause 500-800 people out of 1 million to be at risk of getting cancer.
EHC reports that “only 8 of 133 businesses in the Old Town neighborhood have all of their required operating permits.” City officials attribute the lack of repercussions to National City’s bureaucracy and their “lack of tools” to act on offenders.
“There’s an unwritten understanding here on the Westside that you don’t have to comply with codes,” says EHC organizer Tony LoPresti.
In the event that Old Town did become strictly residential, the number of non-conforming businesses facing amortization in the area would be overwhelming, especially for a neighborhood that’s been eager to see them go.
On paper, “non-conforming” is defined as a business that is “detrimental to the orderly development of the city … harmful when the use is adjacent to a residence … (or) could cause the displacement of families and traumatic disruption of their lives.”
“I would like to see the development of a task force and shut down the gross polluters,” says Councilman Frank Parra, who chairs the city’s Asthma Coalition. “Start to include the fire department, federal agencies, and the state and begin citing offenders.”
LoPresti, has been working in the community for over a year and expressed excitement upon seeing all the green lights switch on after Mayor Nick Inzunza said, “All in favor of the ordinance?”
He says the group’s not yet ready for immediate action, but they look forward to working on changing the zoning specification in Old Town and that working towards finding an area to relocate businesses would be ideal, something Jingco might want to check out.