City closes recycling center that would fund a shelter for La Jolla’s homeless
How to Help: Tresha Souza is hoping for a resolution so she can reopen at CVS. She asks merchants who may have space for a recycling center or anyone with expertise to help her wade through the bureaucratic process to contact her at (858) 414-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
By Pat Sherman
A recycling center that was opened earlier this year to raise money for a proposed shelter serving the homeless in La Jolla and Pacific Beach was forced to cease operations May 31, or face fines of $500 a day.
The recycling center’s operator, Tresha Souza, says she is the victim of nebulous municipal codes, conflicting city evaluations and selective enforcement.
Souza, who is also founder of the nonprofit organization, So Others May Eat, Inc., which serves free meals to the homeless at Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church in La Jolla, opened her recycling center more than three months ago, in the alley adjacent to CVS Pharmacy at 4445 Mission Blvd. in Pacific Beach. She hopes to use money from the business to fund a homeless shelter she intends to open on Mission Bay Drive in Pacific Beach. The shelter would serve the longterm and emergency needs of the homeless in local beach communities.
Before opening, Souza obtained a business tax license and city approval for the recycling center, which was open 30 hours per week before closing.
“I went to zoning three times,” she said. “They looked up all the codes and told me I’m good to go. This was in January. … I did my due diligence.”
Souza also obtained written approval from the district manager of CVS Pharmacy, as well as CalRecycle, the state agency that oversees the collection and payment of California Redemption Value (CRV) funds, which are collected as fees paid on the purchase of recyclable beverage containers. CalRecycle reimburses recycling center operators such as Souza, as well as curbside recyclers who contract with the city of San Diego and other municipalities.
On April 24 Souza said she received a phone call from Lisa Johnson, a land development investigator with the city’s code enforcement department, alerting her to the results of an investigation of her center that took place earlier that day, when Souza was not present.
A written report of the inspection dated May 7 states, in part, that Souza was operating “without a required permit contrary to permit conditions,” (code section 121.0302), and that “facilities that are not within a fully enclosed building shall be set back at least 10 feet from any building or public-right-of- way” (code section 141.0620).
Souza said her center is more than 10 feet from the alley. Gary Geiler, an associate planer with the city’s development services department, agreed with Souza, telling her upon a later site visit that she in fact appeared to be compliant with the city’s municipal code.
Speaking with the La Jolla Light, Bob Vacchi, deputy director of the city’s neighborhood code compliance division, was not certain if Souza required an additional permit for her center, as stated in the inspection.
“Some recycling facilities require higher-level permits, because they’re bigger operations,” he said. “In this case you could probably operate one without a special permit. “I don’t think that code section (121.0302) relates to a permit, specifically,” Vacchi added. “The biggest problem she has is that she doesn’t have the room where she is to meet the code requirement.”
Joe LaCava, who sits on the boards of several La Jolla groups that advise the city on planning and land use issues, also serves on an exploratory committee working to help Souza open her homeless shelter.
LaCava said small businesses routinely complain that city regulations are difficult to interpret and apply.
“If someone can’t afford to hire an attorney, it can be confusing and too often the small businessperson is the one who suffers when (the city) says, ‘You read the regulation incorrectly,’ ” LaCava said. “I think that is really what is happening here. … I think the wording in the municipal code is open to interpretation, and that her business should be given the benefit of the doubt because she made a reasonable interpretation of the code.”
Vacchi said the city inspected Souza’s operation after receiving complaints from three adjacent business owners, including two located on the alley near her space. The complaints had to do with alleged disturbances by homeless people patronizing Souza’s center.
Souza noted that several other recycling centers in San Diego operate in a similar fashion as hers, but have not been inspected.
“We operate on a complaint basis, so we would generally only go out and look at things if we get a complaint on them,” Vacchi said.
Souza, who denied any disturbance by her customers, took issue with another section of her inspection, which notes her center’s “visual impact upon the community.”
However, Souza said her center is largely removed from public view.
“We are in an alley with a 12-foot privacy fence around us, behind IHOP, behind Taco Bell. People don’t even know we’re here,” she said. “Clearly, they’re talking about the homeless.
“Around the corner you’ve got five bars. I’ve had to stop guys (leaving the bars) from peeing in the alley.”
Souza said she also was asked to cease operations by CalRecycle, in response to a complaint from Dan Regan, owner of Regan Recycling. CalRecycle Senior Analyst Walt Sim-mons relayed the complaint to her, she said.
Regan once ran a mobile recycling business in Pacific Beach, before selling it to an employee, whom he said eventually lost control of it due to poor business decisions and personal problems.
Though Regan denied complaining to CalRecycle about Souza’s operation, he confirmed that he hoped to restart his mobile recycling program in Pacific Beach, including once-a-week operations at CVS Pharmacy.
“The director of CVS said I was one day late and he’d just made an agreement with Tresha, and I said, ‘Darn, the timing,’” recalled Regan, who once served as recycling manager for Sacramento County.
In 1997, Regan met with Pacific Beach law enforcement, community leaders and business owners to draft Assembly Bill 1639. The legislation called for the establishment of his pilot mobile recycling program in Pacific Beach, which operated five days a week, at a different location each day. The program was designed to make recycling centers more palatable to the community by not en- couraging the homeless to congregate in one specific area.
Regan, who has been negotiating with Pacific Beach retailers to restart the mobile recycling program, said the alley behind CVS is “too tight” to sustain a recycling operation more than one day per week.
“If Tresha was there I’d respect her and I would back off, but, see, if she’s going to be on Mission Boulevard at CVS, it’s a time bomb,” he said. “Even with careful, great management, it’s just too tight. I drove by a couple times and noticed all the loitering and the shopping carts. A permanent site at CVS is just not going to work … but it may work on a one-day a week basis.”
The Light asked the city to inspect three recycling centers operating adjacent to retailers, in a similar manner as Souza’s — including two owned by Regan.
An inspection of Regan’s Clairemont and Ocean Beach centers found the operations were both “too large and too close to the building,” Vacchi responded via e-mail. A case has been opened on both centers and the city is preparing a notice to request “voluntary compliance,” the e-mail stated. A third center, Replanet Recycling on Genesse Avenue, was found to be “too large.”
Regan said his permanent sites in Point Loma and Clairemont do not cater to the homeless.
“All my sites cater to churches, schools and families,” he said. “The street people, if they don’t play by our rules, we do not serve them. That means no shopping carts and they must be sober when they come in.”
But Souza said she requests the same respect and orderliness from her clients.
During a May visit to Souza’s center, Doug Sovinsko of Pacific Beach Christian Church was there with a handyman named Glen to redeem $48 in recyclables. The church redeems recyclables donated by congregants to pay those who are “down on their luck” for odd jobs around the church.
“Glen’s unemployed, but he’s kind of being employed through the recycling program,” Sovinsko said. “It’s really a win-win.”
Though Vacchi said a recent reevaluation of Souza’s site now allows her existing 20-foot storage container to fulfill a code requirement that her facility be “enclosed,” last week Souza was told by another code compliance employee that she now needs a building permit and a signed letter from CVS’s corporate office, signifying their buy-in.
CVS store manager Danette Alvarado said the retailer is having second thoughts about a recycling center operating at its store, even though CalRecycle requires that all CRV beverage retailers with annual sales of $2 million or more must have a center located within a mile of their site. Otherwise, they must institute an in-store redemption program or face penalties of $100 a day.
“I’m thinking that, because of our neighbors next to us, corporate-wise we are just not going to do it after all,” Alvarado said. “It was a problem, a big fight.”
As the first recycling center operator to re-open in Pacific Beach, either Souza or Regan would benefit from average “handling fees” of $3,000 or more a month, which CalRecycle pays to recyclers as an incentive to open up in un-served areas like Pacific Beach.
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