ALAMEDA COUNTY -- Those large metal donation boxes that began popping up last year will now fall under stricter county rules that ban them in unincorporated areas and require a $1,500 application fee.
The new ordinance that goes into effect in mid-August is a response to complaints that the boxes are magnets for illegal dumping, graffiti and scavenging.
The metal boxes, most of which are almost 7 feet tall, started showing up all over Castro Valley, San Lorenzo and Cherryland last summer. It turns out the county had no ordinance regulating them or way to keep track of the owners, number of boxes or locations. The major operators listed in a county report -- Campus California, Discover Books and USAgain -- are not well-known but the new rules cover all organizations that use the boxes.
The boxes will only be allowed at "community facilities" such as schools, churches, libraries, senior centers and parks, said Albert Lopez, county planning director. Property owners will have to get a conditional use permit to allow each box, at a cost of $1,500 each, and the bins must be at least 2,500 feet apart.
"The community really spoke and said that they didn't want to encourage these," Lopez said. County planners credited the Castro Valley Municipal Advisory Council with pushing for the ordinance.
At one time, there were 28 boxes along Castro Valley Boulevard alone, said Matt Turner, Castro Valley MAC member. Dozens of them were scattered throughout the western unincorporated area when the county started looking into the issue, said Angela Robinson Pinon, county senior planner.
Some Castro Valley business owners were concerned because the boxes appeared in front of their stores without their permission, Turner said.
"(The boxes) were often blocking the public right of way, garbage was being dumped around them and they weren't being policed," he said.
People regularly dump items, including furniture, at the box at El Rancho Supermercado on Redwood Road, said an employee who asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak for the store. "The company comes in every day and cleans up their box, but people come in at nighttime and leave a lot of garbage," he said.
The ordinance is a compromise, county senior planner Angela Robinson-Pinon said. Some residents, especially from Castro Valley, wanted to ban the boxes entirely, while others thought they should be allowed in certain cases, such as a church with its own donation box to benefit its parishioners, or where they might generate revenue for schools.
"There was a lot of back and forth whether the boxes should be allowed in unincorporated Alameda County at all," Robinson-Pinon said.
The ordinance will apply to all current and future boxes. Property owners could be subject to fines and the boxes eventually removed if they don't comply with the ordinance, Robinson-Pinon said.
The ordinance definitely will affect USAgain's ability to do business, said Tobin Costen, division manager at the for-profit company's Hayward site.
He defended his company's boxes, calling them recycling boxes, saying they keep clothes out of landfills. USAgain recycles about 96 percent of the clothing that is put in its bins, he said. Some is sold to thrift stores, while the rest is reused as rags and insulation.
"Some people want them, because they're full or nearly full, so people are using them," he said. Clothing dropped in his company's boxes are not tax-deductible donations.
He acknowledged that some bins have had problems. "Just like other industries, in our industry there are some good players and some not-so-good. Some organizations just drop the boxes, don't maintain them and sometimes don't even get the permission of the owners," he said. "Some of our nonprofit and for-profit competitors, like us, are trying to provide services for community. Others don't, and it messes things up for all of us."
USAgain will take a hard look at which of its 11 boxes in the unincorporated area it makes sense to keep, said Julie Faqir, government relations manager for the company.
"$1,500 is a lot of money," she said. "We will comply with the rules, obviously."