A plan by the Port of Los Angeles to build a fireboat station in an area that for decades has been devoted to commercial fishing interests has sparked a wave of protests from fishermen and fish wholesalers, and rekindled charges that the port has neglected their needs.
Representatives of the two groups say the proposed station, which would be built at the northern end of the wholesale municipal fish markets at Berth 72, would not only eliminate a major portion of the market's dock space, but would force a popular marine fuel station to relocate or shut down and split the market area from the slip where fishermen tie up their vessels.
The groups say they will meet with port planners during the next several weeks to voice their concerns and try to persuade them to scrap the plan. The Board of Harbor Commissioners is scheduled to review the matter in early July.
"The station would be plunked down right in the middle of an area used by all the fishing boats," said Tom Crehan, an attorney who represents the 12 market tenants. Crehan asserted that locating the station next to the markets and near the fishing fleet's slip is comparable to putting it next to a "busy freeway on-ramp or off-ramp."
In the wake of the protests, Los Angeles Harbor Department officials have been ordered by commissioners to provide them with more information on alternative sites. The commissioners also asked port planners to gauge what impact locating the station next to the markets would have on the wholesale operations and on fishermen.
In addition, commissioners have questioned whether the proposed station, which would replace three fireboat operations, should be built at all. Port planners maintain that one of the three stations should be torn down immediately to allow the expansion of a major container cargo terminal on the site.
"We're going to take another look," said Jack Wells, chief deputy executive director of the port, "and invite greater participation by the fishermen and their representatives."
Port officials have disputed charges that the proposed station would seriously disrupt fishing or market activities. They maintain that the station, which would cost an estimated $3.5 million and house two fireboats, is needed not only to allow the cargo terminal expansion, but to decrease the port's fire protection costs and provide service to the port's outer harbor, where a major landfill project is planned.
Wells, in a recent interview, said the port now pays the Los Angeles Fire Department about $6.25 million annually to operate four fireboat stations in the harbor. By consolidating three stations, one at Cabrillo Beach and two at Terminal Island, into a new one adjacent to the markets, the port could save about $750,000 a year by reducing personnel and equipment costs, he said.
While port planners would prefer not to locate the new station adjacent to the fish markets, Wells said, the market site was selected after at least six other areas were rejected by the Fire Department. Some were too distant to provide adequate response time by firefighters to certain areas, and some were in dead-end slips. Fire officials fear that their boats could become trapped in such slips during an emergency.
"We looked all over the harbor, and after consulting with the Fire Department, we felt this site offered the least amount of disruption and inconvenience to our tenants," Wells said. He added that if the station is built, fishermen would not face problems getting to and from the nearby tie-up slip.
"What you have here in the harbor is a number of fireboats that don't have that many emergency calls," Wells said. "It's not like you're going to have a fireboat darting in and out of the station all of the time."
Firefighters assigned to the station that the port hopes to demolish respond, on the average, to one emergency call every four or five days, Wells said.
But market tenants and fishermen, renewing their long-standing complaint that the Harbor Department has treated their industry with indifference in recent years while favoring more profitable tenants such as cargo handlers, disagree with the plan. The proposed station will only create more hardships for fishermen already suffering from cannery closures, foreign competition and poor fishing conditions, they said.
The two groups also say they are angry because port officials failed to notify them until March that construction of a fireboat station next to the markets was being proposed.
Steve Vilicich, president of the Hy-C-Tane Corp., a marine fuel and supply station that would have to relocate or close if the fireboat station is built, said it was not until he approached several port officials who were surveying the property he leases that he learned about the proposal.
Model in Lobby
"It was out of the clear blue sky, and after they already had plans drawn up of the whole project," Vilicich said. "Unknown to us, they already had a model of the fire station in the lobby of the Harbor Department."
"My people feel this is not the way to run a railroad," Crehan, the tenants' attorney, said. "It borders on arrogance and insensitivity. It is certainly a very cavalier way to treat tenants."
Wells said he was informed by port employees that the two groups had been told about the proposed fire station well before March.
Larry Bozanich, general manager of the Fisherman's Cooperative Assn., which manages the slips near the markets, said that if the fireboat station is built, it would not only create traffic congestion for boats coming in and out of the slips, but would eliminate space in front of Hy-C-Tane where some larger tuna boats occasionally dock after refueling.
"I don't have any place in the slip to put some of the tuna boats," Bozanich said. "And there isn't any place here for some of the larger boats to maneuver and turn around."
Forced to Relocate
Bozanich, as well as Crehan, said that if the station is built, more than 100 feet of dock area now used by the market tenants and fishermen would be eliminated, market tenants would be forced to relocate their ice and refrigeration equipment, and parking spaces in front of the market would be decreased by a third. The port has offered to pay to relocate the equipment.
Fishermen and market tenants have come to the defense of Hy-C-Tane, which has operated next to the markets for more than 30 years. Harbor Department officials have offered to relocate the firm. One site that has been discussed is on the south side of the markets.
However, Vilicich, who operates the firm with his brother, John, said it is unlikely he could afford to move the business because the costs would be passed along to him in the form of higher rent. Port officials have indicated that the firm's monthly rent would jump to about $4,000, more than twice what it is now, he said.
"We can't afford that kind of rent, no way shape or form, unless the fisheries build up. And that is not something that is going to happen overnight."