U-Haul Berkeley was doing a brisk business late Thursday afternoon, with customers maneuvering trucks in and out of the lot at Addison Street and San Pablo Avenue, workers cleaning up the vehicles and people queuing up five deep at the indoor customer service counter.
Observing the scene, one would not know that Berkeley code enforcement backed by an October 2007 City Council order had closed down the truck rental business and that a superior court judge had upheld the council decision.
In a complaint filed May 21, the city alleges that U-Haul has violated the council’s October 2007 use permit revocation order and asks the court to issue an order “prohibiting U-Haul from causing a public nuisance by continuing its illegal use at 2100 San Pablo Avenue.”
A decade ago, the city began documenting problems with the business, established in Berkeley in 1975. Neighbors complained that U-Haul blocked their streets and driveways and created noise by allowing customers to drop off trucks at the site at night. Neighbors also complained that U-Haul customers deposited trash and furniture on their streets.
This led to a series of hearings and decisions, ending with the council vote to revoke the permit that allowed the business to rent out trucks and equipment.
Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan told the Planet Friday that he had never seen an instance like this, where a business would ignore both a city and a judge’s confirmation of the city's order.
“It’s kind of astonishing,” Cowan said.
The court turned down the city’s request for a temporary restraining order, but will hear the city’s motion for a preliminary injunction at 3 p.m. June 23 in Department 16 of the Alameda County Superior Court, 1221 Oak. The city’s aim is to stop U-Haul from renting trucks and equipment at the Berkeley location.
If the judge finds in Berkeley’s favor, and U-Haul continued to operate their business, “They would be in contempt of court,” Cowan said, noting that could lead to fines or even jail time.
Thursday afternoon, after observing 15 trucks, four vans and ten hitches parked in the lot—and customers actively driving in and out—a reporter asked a U-Haul employee if the company continued to rent trucks.
She said they do not rent. “It is shared equipment,” she said. The employee had numerous customers lined up and said she did not have time to elaborate.
Observing a young man leaving the customer service desk with papers, the reporter asked if he had rented a truck. He said, “Yes.” Having overheard the response, the employee called out, “It is shared, not rented.”
Eric Crocker, president of U-Haul Company of West Sacramento, did not return Planet calls and U-Haul’s attorney Jon York said it is his firm’s policy not to talk to reporters about ongoing cases.
Asked if “sharing” the trucks was a viable alternative to renting them, Cowan hesitated and said, “There’s no polite way to respond.”
Then he continued: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.”
“Sharing” is just like renting, Cowan said. People reserve trucks and pay for them using credit cards—it’s not free. “They’re not a member of U-Haul,” he said.
A separate case in which U-Haul is suing Berkeley will be heard in federal court in August, Cowan said. In that suit, U-Haul claims the business should be allowed to operate on environmental and civil rights grounds.
“Consistent with the local green philosophy and the city’s purported policy, U-Haul has dedicated itself to protecting and preserving the surrounding environment by maintaining an environmentally friendly truck-sharing business model limiting harmful carbon dioxide emissions and removing polluting vehicles from the streets,” the U-Haul complaint says.
(For more on this issue, see http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2008-05-15/article/29996?headline=U-Haul-Takes-City-to-Court-Again-Over-San-Pablo-Site.)