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Metropolitan Director Calls Plan ‘Most Inappropriate’ : Norwalk Eyes Hospital Site for Trash Unit

Times Staff Writer

Four white houses occupy a grassy corner of Metropolitan State Hospital, encircled by the kind of generous lawns that can still be found on the mental institution’s grounds--despite the repeated nibblings of this land-hungry community.

The Civic Center and some of Norwalk’s biggest corporate buildings were erected on land that originally belonged to Metropolitan, the largest treatment center for the acutely mentally ill in Southern California. Once spread across more than 300 acres, the hospital grounds have shrunk to about half that size.

But Metropolitan’s spacious campus continues to tempt Norwalk. The City Council is eyeing six acres at Metropolitan’s northeastern edge, along Bloomfield Avenue, where the city has recently expressed interest in building a $10-million trash transfer and recycling station, or possibly even a waste-to-energy plant.

The four staff houses, all dating from the 72-year-old hospital’s earliest days, would be demolished to make way for waste facilities that could process the 400 tons of trash produced daily by Norwalk homes and businesses. The garbage is now trucked by private haulers to the swelling Puente Hills landfill, which is expected to close sometime early in the next decade.

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Trash Would Be Compacted

At a transfer and recycling station, cans, bottles and paper would be mechanically plucked from the garbage for recycling, and the rest would be compacted, either for long-distance shipment to far-flung landfills, or trucking to regional trash incinerators.

Although the city-appointed Blue Ribbon Committee that is looking for solutions to the city’s garbage problem and recommended the Metropolitan parcel concluded that a transfer station was a more prudent trash solution than a waste-to-energy plant, the council wants to further explore that option before deciding if it is worth pursuing.

The city proposal already is raising the ire of the hospital administration, but Norwalk officials insist that with 170 acres, Metropolitan has land to spare. Moreover, they say it would be irresponsible of them not to develop future plans for dealing with the city’s refuse.

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“Regardless of where (the transfer station is) going to go, you’re going to get flak from a lot of people,” Councilman Bob White said. “It can’t all be peaches and cream. We’re faced with a dilemma now, and unless we get off our buttinskis and do something about it . . . .”

White says the hospital parcel would be a good place for a trash station because it is removed from Norwalk’s residential neighborhoods, is in a part of the city zoned for industry and abuts industrial areas on two sides.

Bounded on the north and east by industrial sections of Santa Fe Springs and on the south and west by hospital land, the proposed site also carries certain political advantages. It takes public, rather than private property, and is not in the immediate backyard of any local voters.

Course of Least Resistance

Ralph Pacheco, chairman of the Blue Ribbon Committee, acknowledged that the site represents “the least course of resistance.”

The committee, which advises the council on a variety of issues, examined 13 Norwalk parcels and evaluated them on a rating system that took into account the parcels’ proximity to residential neighborhoods, commercial usefulness and access to truck and rail transportation. The committee’s second choice was a Firestone Boulevard industrial tract used by the Pipeline Trucking Co.. Some nursery property on Carmenita Road south of Rosecrans Avenue was ranked third.

Although the proposed location is not next door to Norwalk homeowners, Bill Silva, Metropolitan’s executive director, complains that it is very much under the noses of the hospital’s 800 patients. It would be “most inappropriate,” he said, to dump tons of smelly garbage at the edge of an institution that is supposed to provide a peaceful, soothing environment for the emotionally disturbed.

“One of our most valuable resources happens to be our open space,” Silva said.

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Three of Four Occupied

Three of the four houses that would have to be torn down are used by hospital executives, some of whom must live on the grounds, he added. The fire chief, police chief and director of research live side by side in roomy bungalow-style houses built in 1923. The largest residence, now vacant but formerly used as the director’s residence, dates from 1918. It was used as the governor’s southern mansion in the 1920s, Silva said, and all four houses are included on the master list of state-owned historic structures.

Pacheco, who called the homes “mini-mansions,” said the Blue Ribbon Committee did not research the historic value of the buildings.

Before the city could take any serious steps to buy the Metropolitan land and build a transfer station there, the six acres would have to be declared surplus by the state Legislature and released for sale. The city intends to ask Sen. Cecil Green (D-Norwalk) to introduce a bill to that effect, but Norwalk officials are hardly brimming with confidence about the bill’s future.

Given Norwalk’s recent track record in Sacramento, Councilman Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez said he doubts the city has more than a 5% to 10% chance of getting the land declared surplus. A 1983 bill that would have declared 50 acres surplus passed the Assembly but died in the Senate in the face of opposition from mental health groups. Two years ago, a bill pronouncing 18 acres surplus also expired after similar opposition, including that of the state Department of Mental Health.

A state mental health spokesman said it would be premature for the department to comment on the latest proposal, but a 1986 report prepared by the California Council on Mental Health concluded that Metropolitan had no surplus land.

“We really felt that there was no land that could be spared,” said Ann Arneill, the council’s executive officer.

Told of the trash transfer station proposal, Arneill said the idea sounded at best “minimally acceptable"--and then only if hospital patients could somehow be employed at the facility, such as in the recycling center.

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Norwalk officials stress that the Metropolitan proposal is still in the exploratory stages, adding that the trucking company and nursery sites have not been ruled out.

Still, Pacheco said it is vital that the city take steps to deal with its trash, long before the gates to Puente Hills are slammed shut.

“I think what we’re proposing is a model program,” he said. “We want to be prepared in advance to address those issues. We don’t want to be left out.”


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