Planning Commission to Rule on West Oakland Customs Inspection Station

Mar 29, 2014

Posted in BusinessCommunityEconomic DevelopmentEnvironmentEqual Rights/EquityHealth

Hearing to Be Held Wednesday, April 2

Ken A. Epstein

Reversing its previous position, the Oakland Planning Department has decided to allow a U.S. Customs Inspection Center to operate in West Oakland.

An appeal on the ruling   will be heard at the next commission meeting, Wednesday, April 2 at 6 p.m. in Oakland City Hall Chambers.

The appeal was brought by environmental activists, who argue that the inspection center will bring an average of 1,200 big rig trucks a month into a community, already suffering from severe air quality hazards. In addition, they say, the purpose of the center means potential dangers to the community, since the center serves as a line defense against possible terrorist or other threats that might enter the country in port containers.

Inspection at port

Those in favor of the center say it will create up to 140 jobs, which are earmarked for people in West Oakland.  They argue that custom’s officials and those who operate other inspection stations say the site poses no hazards or negative environmental impacts on the community.

Unless the zoning ruling is reversed, the inspection center will be operated by North America 3PL at 1700 20th St. in Oakland, headed by CEO Tom Henderson, a local entrepreneur.  Adding to community concerns, the old Horizon Beverage building is located across the street from Raimondi Park, which has an athletic field that is widely used by youth groups.

City Zoning Department staff had originally ruled that the inspection site in West Oakland would violate zoning regulations forbidding business to be located in the area that handle potentially hazardous materials.

Staff reversed itself in February, however, saying that upon investigation, they saw that the containers would only remain at the site for a short time, before being returned the port. Since these containers would not remain on site for more than 30 days, city zoning prohibitions do not apply to this business.

Challenging the ruling were Brian Beveridge and Margaret Gordon of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), who filed the zoning appeal. Staff has overstepped their authority, developing policy for a new type of business in the area, rather than sending the policy issue to the City Council for public discussion, they say.

“Despite glowing reports about the safety of the site by customs officials and the applicant (Henderson), who has never done this work before, nobody has produced any documented evidence that it is safe,” said Beveridge.

”We don’t ever experience anything dangerous, they say, but then they add that in event of an incident, they will take appropriate action,” though they will not, for security reasons, specify exactly what precautions they will take, Beveridge said.

The only reason U.S. Customs is seeking a site in West Oakland is because city officials did not appropriately plan how to maintain the inspection center at the Army Base when the development project began and even issued an eviction notice to the previous company that handled inspections, according to Beveridge.

Should the zoning appeal fail, he said, WOEIP is considering filing a complaint under Title VI f the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits use of federal funds on projects that increase negative environmental impacts on already disadvantaged communities.

If a complaint were upheld, the city could lose nearly $50 million in a new Department of Transportation TIGER grant it is seeking to help fund the Army Base development.

Coming down on the other side, emphasizing the need for new jobs, is Darrel Carey, president of the East Bay Small Business Council.

“You have 140 jobs that are risk here. We should really look at the thing seriously because the priority is for jobs that would go to West Oakland, to the 94607 and 94608 areas codes.”

In speaking to Customs officials, Carey said, he has heard  “there are no environmental impacts, there are no dangerous materials that would be stored there.”

Compared wit the propane tanks that were at Horizon Beverage in the past, he said, “Aren’t we in a better situation than we were then? And this means jobs for Oaklanders.”