When Rose and Robert Black moved into a former metal fabrication facility in East Oakland nearly twenty years ago, they thought they knew what they were getting into. Sculptors by trade, the couple was actively seeking a neighborhood zoned for mixed residential and industrial uses. That's why they haven't complained about the railroad tracks, chemical companies, cluttered warehouses, company trucks, or generic industrial bustle of their Stonehurst neighborhood. It's what they expected.
But soon after moving into their new home, they did get irked about the odors, incessant noise, and strewn debris emanating from one of their new neighbors, the Aaron Metals Company. At first it was just annoying, but then the couple began to suspect that it also might be illegal. And when they discovered that the company had indeed operated for decades without regard to city zoning, traffic, or noise standards, the Blacks chose not to let it slide. Even the scrap yard's drainage runoff violated state water regulations up until last year.
In 1976, company founder Paul Forkash obtained a city conditional use permit to operate a 9,750-square-foot scrap yard. Today, the Aaron Metals operation covers 108,442 square feet, although only the original area is legally approved for business, according to records on file at the Oakland Planning and Zoning Division.
The recycler's steady sprawl might have evaded notice had it not requested permission four years ago to expand further. City inspectors then visited the yard and found that Aaron Metals was already past due for a little land-use accountability. So planners and code enforcement officers rolled up their sleeves and began a multi-year investigation into how to bring the scrap dealer up to date on its permits.
Whenever a business applies for the type of conditional use permit that Aaron Metals has long lagged behind on, the city evaluates its traffic, noise, fencing, dumping, hours of operation, and material stacking. "We're just trying to bring them up to date, so we're looking at all those conditions," said Robert Merkamp of the Oakland Planning and Zoning Division, who manages the Aaron Metals case. "This is a major conditional use permit, so the conditions are pretty major, too — especially traffic."
From the outside, Aaron Metals looks like most of the area's other scrap yards. In fact, city officials say the company has a short rap sheet for a business of its size and type. "The funny thing is that they got permits for all these little things over the years, like a permit to demolish a structure or a permit to build fences, but not the one for actual expansion," Merkamp said. "I think they thought they had it covered."
But neighbors resent that a business could be grandfathered into compliance with rules it seems to have blatantly disregarded for years. Local activist and longtime resident Phebia Richardson, who worked tirelessly over the years to push out some of the chemical companies that once were fixtures in the area, complains that Aaron Metals drags the neighborhood back to its days of heavy industry. The neighborhood's zoning has changed over the years, she notes, and the recycling yard needs to act more like a business permitted to operate on land set aside for light industry.
Company officials declined to be interviewed for this story despite repeated attempts. But in a letter to the city last year, Jesykah Forkash, the elder Forkash's daughter and co-worker in the business, wrote that neighbors' criticisms about noise, littering, and parking are based on "a distorted view" of her family's company. "Our company is a successful, responsible, organized operation that does its best to keep the neighborhood free from waste," she wrote. "Because we see it as our civic duty to keep up good relations with our neighbors."
The scrap yard's neighbors don't seem to buy that argument. "This isn't a matter of little people versus big industry," Rose said. "We support business, we support industry here and it's what we wanted. What we object to is when a company decides to operate illegally on property they have no lawful right to be doing business on and when they have such a negative impact on our neighborhood."
Victoria Skirpa moved to Stonehurst for reasons similar to those of the Blacks. An artist by trade, the thought of living in a poor but ethnically diverse neighborhood zoned for light industry appealed to her. She bought a home one house and a narrow street away from Aaron Metals. The recyclers then bought the house next to hers and razed it to accommodate their growing piles of junk, which soon heightened into towers taller than the surrounding fence. Today, the two-story brown and concertina-wired scrap yard abuts Victoria's home and nearly encompasses the house directly across from her, which houses one of the neighborhood's oldest residents.
So Skirpa, Richardson, the Blacks, and at least one hundred other neighbors have signed a petition to relocate the scrap yard. Skirpa and a handful of others repeatedly met with their district councilman Larry Reid during the past several months to alert him to the problems they claim Aaron Metals creates.
Reid took their concerns to heart, but disagreed that the city should help relocate the business. "It's a long-standing company, and you've got a number of employees that are working there, some of them people who live in the community, and you may have to pay them for any loss of work," he said. "The city would also have to reimburse them for any loss of revenues that the business may eat up in a move like that. A move like that just wouldn't make sense."
Even more than the unsightliness, Skirpa, the Blacks, and employees of other nearby businesses say they agonize over the traffic from the scrap yard fleet and its daily rush hour along 105th Avenue.
Tai Lon, a business owner who operates out of 80,000 feet of warehouse space across the street from Aaron Metals, claimed in a letter to the city that scrap-yard employees park their trucks on his property and back up traffic along the adjacent railroad tracks. City inspectors pay particular attention to a company's traffic impact before approving a conditional use permit. Traffic to and from Aaron Metals has until recently gone officially unnoticed, and the only ones vocal about the daily gridlocks of scrap-yard customers are the people who actually call Stonehurst home.
"Aaron Metals does not have enough parking for its workers," reads Lon's letter to councilman Reid. "So they constantly try to park at my place without my authorization." Sometimes, he added, his customers cannot even go in and out of his warehouse because Aaron Metals "does not have enough parking to handle its business."
When the scrap yard gets too crowded for one of the several eighteen-wheelers that travel to and from the business, employees send it to an abandoned alley, Gravenstein Street — illegal parking for consistent commercial use. The city recently gated it off to prevent it from happening anymore.
And parking was hardly the only thing spilling over — stacks of scraps toppled over the yard's tall fences, injuring one passerby. John Furtado, a neighbor across the street from the scrap yard, sued Aaron Metals for $7,000 in 2004 after sustaining injuries to his arm when one of the company's containers fell and struck him as he walked on an adjacent sidewalk. The incident only worsened residents' opinion of the company.
But not everyone finds scrap-yard owner and Blackhawk resident Paul Forkash unreasonable. Some legal foes said the company's apparent lawlessness is unwitting, and when brought to their attention, promptly fixed. Last fall, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance reached a settlement with Aaron Metals for $80,000 because piles of non-ferrous junk leaked metal runoff into public water, keeping the business' environmental impact below-standard for General Industrial Storm Water Permit requirements. Bill Jennings, who filed the suit and worked out the settlement, said the case proved ideal as far as settlements go.
"As soon as they found out they needed to stop pollution from their zinc, copper, or whatever other metals they had running into the water, they worked it out with us," Jennings said. "They were reasonable, amicable even, and agreed to everything we asked them to change, which was quite a lot. There were serious amounts of metal runoff there."
Money from the litigation will go toward a few nonprofit foundations and environmental groups to protect the bay waters. The settlement also required regular visits from an independent consultant to monitor whether the metal recycling company continues to comply with runoff regulations and seriously improves its housekeeping.
Meanwhile, Oakland planning commissioners are set to talk on March 5 about how close to nearby homes recycling yards the size and scope of Aaron Metals will be allowed to operate. The law dictates a 400-foot leeway, but according to the agenda, planners will decide whether or not to shrink that to a 300-foot gap between homes and light industry. Regardless of how it flies next month, Aaron Metals will have to back up its boundaries. Aaron Metals is operating a much larger scrap yard than it is permitted for.
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