Peter Mendoza, a Wilmington community leader who has frequently criticized Los Angeles officials for allowing cargo containers to be stored in residential areas, is being pressured by city officials to remove dozens of containers from residential property he owns with several partners.
City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores' office is considering filing a complaint with the Department of Building and Safety if Mendoza and his partners do not voluntarily remove the containers, which are prohibited by the city's zoning code, city officials said.
"We are hopeful that there will be voluntary compliance," said Bernie Evans, chief deputy to Flores. "We have had informal discussions with them, and we want to give them plenty of time to comply on their own."
Mendoza acknowledges that the containers may be stored illegally, but said they will be removed within a year when the property is developed.
Plans to Build Homes
Mendoza, president of the Wilmington Home Owners organization, is general partner of Home Owner Partnership, a group of 20 investors who bought the three-acre parcel at 816 East L St. in December. The limited partnership plans to build 20 single-family homes, but in the meantime has leased the land to International Cargo Equipment, a container company that had been renting the land from its previous owners.
Mendoza, who several years ago complained to city officials that the containers were on the site illegally, said in an interview that his partnership needs the lease revenue to pay debts while investors plan the residential development.
"What more can a guy do to get rid of those ugly-looking (things) than buy the property and get rid of them himself?" he said. "But it is going to take some time."
Mendoza accused Flores' office of "flexing its muscle" because he and other members of the homeowner group, some of whom also belong to the partnership, have been outspoken critics of the councilwoman, frequently complaining that she neglects Wilmington's residents.
"When we purchased the property, our goal was to clean up one small part of Wilmington," Mendoza said. "We will be happy to get rid of our containers if simultaneously they clean up all the junk in the rest of the city that they have ignored for so long."
Nelson Hernandez, Flores' Wilmington aide who initiated the action against the partnership, denied that Flores has neglected Wilmington, and said the move is part of an ongoing effort to cite zoning violators.
Storing containers on residential lots raises "questions of safety, noise and truck traffic on residential streets not designed for heavy trucks," Hernandez said. "We have taken identical steps on identical properties elsewhere in Wilmington. We would like to see all zoning violations removed."
For example, city officials last month cited Potential Industries, a recycling firm on East L Street, for conducting industrial activities on residentially zoned land, Hernandez said.
While acknowledging that the containers violate "the spirit of the law," Mendoza said they may not be illegal because of a lawsuit filed against the city by the property's previous owners, relatives of George Lupie, who bought the land at the turn of the century and left it to his family in a trust when he died in the 1930s.
Zoning Change Opposed
The trustees, represented by attorney John Belsher, sued the city because it changed the zoning on the property from industrial to residential when the community plan was updated in 1979. Belsher said last week that the city attorney's office agreed not to enforce the new zoning requirements, which took effect in 1984, until the suit is settled.
The suit has been inactive since the trustees sold the property to the partnership, but Belsher said that even though the agreement was with the trustees and not the partnership, the deal still applies because the trustees have not broken all ties with the property. He said the trustees have a "security interest" in the property because their agreement with the partnership allows the new owners to pay for the land over an extended period of time.
"If we had no interest in the property, it would be different," Belsher said. "In a sense, we are kind of like partners. We have a vested interest in seeing that (the partnership) succeeds."
But Deputy City Atty. Jolaine Harkless, who has been handling the trustees' suit for the city, said the agreement not to enforce the new zoning code does not apply to the partnership, which is now the owner of record.
"The litigation is between the previous owner and the city, so that would not impact on the new owners," Harkless said. "The city can cite the new owners if it chooses to."
Evans said Flores, who returned last week from a trade-related trip to South America, has not had time to study the issue and determine what action she will take. Evans recently met with Belsher, Harkless and representatives of the partnership and the city's Department of Building and Safety to discuss the alleged violations.
"It is a good project they are proposing, but if we set a precedent and say the containers are allowed for a year or two, then somebody else who was cited could come and say they want the same consideration," Evans said. "There are containers stored there illegally, and something has to be done about it."
Even if the containers are found to be illegal, Mendoza said, the violation would be minor compared to the numerous cases of illegal dumping and illegal storage throughout the community by people "who are not working toward something valuable."
"If I am driving down the freeway going 65 and people are passing me at 75, I don't feel as bad about breaking the law," he said. "I am driving that fast to do something very important. The others are just trying to make a buck."
At a recent meeting of the Wilmington Home Owners organization, numerous residents defended the partnership, saying they would gladly put up with containers if they knew that they would eventually be replaced by single-family homes.
"We are tired of apartments in Wilmington, and they are doing something about it," one homeowner said. "It will be worth it in the end."
But some residents privately chastised Mendoza, saying he has a double standard on the container issue.
"When you take a stand, you have to back it up. I understand what he is saying, but there is a definite double standard," said one resident, who asked not to be identified.
"If he is going to attack others, then he has to be ready for scrutiny himself."