Point Fermin Elementary s electrical units and lunch shelter encroach on about 25 feet of L.A. city property. Locals, including San Pedro resident James Campeau, want a sidewalk built there. He also wants to remove utility poles over safety concerns. They also block his view. (Scott Varley / Staff Photographer)
By Melissa Pamer, Staff Writer | Daily Breeze
5 October 2008 --Los Angeles Unified has broken the rules, and San Pedro resident James Campeau is challenging its bureaucracy in an attempt to hold the school district accountable.
The site of his frustration -- and of LAUSD's transgression - is Point Fermin Elementary School, which encroaches about 25 feet onto Los Angeles city property, a few blocks from Campeau's home.
The district had permission dating back to 1931 to use the city land, but it failed to renew that permit in recent years when it built a student lunch shelter and installed new electrical and air conditioning equipment.
"LAUSD can't wiggle out of this one," Campeau said. "We've got them on the ropes."
He and a group of residents want the school to back off city property so that a sidewalk can be built along steep, narrow Carolina Street, which runs along the rear of the campus. (There is a sidewalk on the other side of the street.)
Campeau also wants to remove utility poles and power lines that he says are a safety hazard to students - and which happen to block his harbor view.
His aggravation started when four new utility poles, needed to power the school's air conditioning and other upgrades, were erected in December 2005. Initially, Campeau and other residents complained about the effect on views, but found that safety concerns were more compelling, Campeau said.
He launched an effort to get the electrical lines placed underground even before he discovered the district's improvements were actually on city property. District and city officials have pronounced the wires, which hang over a metal school lunch shelter, safe.
Since 2005, Campeau's quest has evolved into a dispute involving officials at the school district, Councilwoman Janice Hahn's office, the city's Bureau of Engineering, the Department of Water and Power and the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council.
On Monday at Hahn's San Pedro office, city and district officials are meeting with Campeau and other community members, as well as Point Fermin parents and Principal Bonnie Taft, to seek a resolution that would soothe tension on all sides.
The meeting comes in advance of the whole mess landing before the city's Board of Public Works later this month, when the district seeks its permit.
A board staff report recommends the permit be issued, stating that there's a lack of city funding for sidewalk improvements and "there is no engineering or safety-related basis to deny" the permit.
Meanwhile, district officials admit they erred in failing to get permission from the city to make recent improvements on the land, and they say that a permanent structure like the outdoor lunch shelter may not have been approved in the public right of way.
The district was tripped up by the fact that a fence has enclosed the school and the city's property to the edge of the street since 1961, officials said.
"We probably made an assumption that where the fence was was our property line," said Neil Gamble, the district's director of maintenance and operations, who stressed that he wasn't in his current position when the lunch shelter was installed in 2000.
Although the district is at fault, officials there have refused Campeau's request to bury the power lines, an operation that Gamble said would cost more than $200,000.
"It is not a safety hazard. And for us to put it underground, in order to benefit his view, that would be (a) gift of public funds," Gamble said.
Los Angeles, unlike some South Bay cities, has no view-protection ordinance. Regardless, Campeau has said what's important to him now is safety.
In an effort to broker a solution, Hahn got the DWP to agree to donate its costs to bury the wires on the city's property. But the district, which would have to pay to bury the wires on its own land, didn't budge.
"I was hopeful that we could use the permit issue to encourage the school district to do right by the neighbors and find a way to underground the wires," Hahn said Friday in a statement. "It has never been the intention to make the school move the lunchroom, but instead to find a solution to the neighbors' concerns."
While the dispute persists, the electrical, air conditioning and technology upgrades that were completed at the school last fall - to the tune of almost $2.3 million -- won't get power until the situation is resolved, district officials said. That has generated frustration on the part of some teachers and parents.
"We've had claim to the land, so to speak, for years, probably for longer than some of the neighbors have been here," said Principal Taft, who held an after-school meeting last week to rally parents.
Campeau accused district officials of "politicizing" the conflict by involving the Point Fermin school community.
His effort has gotten backing from the local Neighborhood Council and from members of NOISE, a group that's organized against a proposed new magnet high school on district property near Angels Gate Park.
If LAUSD doesn't remove the wires, Campeau said he may appeal to the district's Office of the Inspector General, or even to Jerry Brown, the state attorney general.
Gamble likewise said if the permit was denied, the district too would look at legal options.
"Hopefully we can come to some resolution," Taft said of Monday's meeting.