Santa Barbara’s Porta-Potty Empire Takes Hits but Wins Vote

Air Quality Questions Raised About Eastside Trash Operations

Credit: Courtesy of Glen Carrie / Unsplash

TAKING SOME LUMPS:  Even after a few hours of heated wrangling, it’s still not clear what the moral of the story actually is. Tuesday night’s semi-protracted showdown at Santa Barbara City Council, I think, might be as simple as this: if you want to be the Porta-Potty King of Siam, be prepared to take a little crap.

Last night, representatives of MarBorg ​— ​once a family-owned small business and now a family-owned-and-operated, multifaceted waste juggernaut ​— ​were forced to endure a few slings and arrows from a few neighbors who truly hate them and their ever-throbbing industrial waste disposal operation, which is tucked into the industrial part of the Eastside where street names tend to begin with Q: Quarantina or Quinientos. 

For the record, I ride my bike through this neighborhood with some frequency. I enjoy it. The streets are wide and the traffic sparse. I get to see who’s living under what bridge and the latest developments in urban camping. And I genuinely like the smell of wet trash in the morning, in controlled doses. And while the rest of Santa Barbara is performing acts of senseless beauty, the people down here ​— ​mostly MarBorg workers ​— ​are engaged in essential activities to any urban organism: taking care of trash. 

MarBorg, whose owners and officers proudly, and frequently, trace their lineage as Santa Barbara trash haulers back 100 years or so, had applied to build a nearly 3,200-square-foot warehouse on 1.26 acres down by the railroad tracks where Quarantina Street heads past a semi-gussified industrial condo complex known as Railroad Square. 

This warehouse has aroused the considerable wrath of Guy Dolev, an alum of Santa Barbara High School and owner of a business named Natural Pack, and tenant/owner of Railroad Square. When built, this warehouse will stand 20½ feet tall; it will be surrounded by a six-foot-high fence. MarBorg will plant 17 trees, after having removed 19 mature eucalyptus trees. It will provide 525 feet of new sidewalk, capture and treat contaminated runoff, and remediate some seriously contaminated soil. 

Inside this warehouse will be the supplies needed to run MarBorg’s porta-potty empire. Imagine nearly 3,200 square feet of toilet paper, paper hand towels, and hand sanitizer piled 20 feet high. The sheer volume of this suggests that revenue stream generated by the porta-potty biz exceeds the waste stream, which is considerable. 

Outside will be porta-potties lined up like soldiers, along with their commanding officers, the elite porta-potty consoles, plus a flotilla of trucks ​— ​powered by compressed natural gas, and an impressive assemblage of roll-out boxes.

I confess I showed up expecting fireworks. When the project went before the Planning Commission in May, Dolev was a Mount Vesuvius of personal vituperation, castigating the Borgatello family in the most personal and slanderous of terms. Over the years, I had received numerous emails from Dolev, and typically they were hot enough to require asbestos gloves. And it’s the threat of asbestos ​— ​or the possibility of it ​— ​that seems to be animating Dolev. Or maybe it’s loss of on-street parking spaces to MarBorg’s 400 happily employed workers. Or, as suggested, it might be the mere existence of the Borgatellos’ sprawling 9.5-acre patchwork of noisy, stinky, industrial operations so close to the Funk Zone and expensive hotels.

But this time, Dolev left most of the talking to the redoubtable Natasha Todorovic, an Eastside activist and a gifted artist in scornful commentary. The new warehouse, Todorovic acknowledged, is probably quite innocuous, but it’s part and parcel of 9.5 acres of industrial wasteland where massive quantities of concrete get pulverized, filling the air with oceans of dust, some of which could include cancer-causing silica and asbestos. It flies all over the Eastside, inflicting who knows what damage on the unsuspecting lungs of who knows how many residents. But because the Air Pollution Control District does not operate any monitoring stations nearby, no one knows what’s in the air column and how real the threat might be. 

Todorvic also accused the Borgatellos of operating without necessary permits or exceeding the terms and conditions of the permits they had. In this regard, she said, she likened the project under review to a closet. But the “house” in question was the whole 9.5 acres. And until the house gets cleaned up, City Hall shouldn’t allow the new closet. 

MarBorg’s attorney, Robert Forouzandeh, rebutted all allegations, describing them either as “false,” “blatantly false,” or “patently false.” The prior owners, he said, allowed the property to become a festering illegal, toxic operation that MarBorg has cleaned up. 

The irony here is that MarBorg managed to gobble up all its competition by virtue of its commitment to recycling, which was both exceptionally shrewd and genuinely impressive. 

The vote was 7-0 in MarBorg’s favor. It wasn’t actually that close. 

Even so, Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, whose district includes the 9.5 acres in question, expressed serious concern about air quality. Councilmember Kristen Sneddon, as always, had questions. Where were the big clouds of particulate matter coming from? she asked. Everyone, she said, could see them from the Riviera.

The moral of the story? Not all questions got answered Tuesday night.


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