I’m sending this email to a number of neighborhood association leaders and other involved folks in District 8, in order to explain my vote yesterday on the AT&T environmental appeal. I would appreciate it if you would forward this email to your boards, memberships, and neighbors who have an interest in this issue. The voters are entitled to an explanation of all of my votes (and I cast many each week), including votes as controversial as this one. People can agree or disagree, but they deserve an explanation.
I will start by saying that I struggled mightily with this issue. Like many of you, I do not like these boxes, or any of the utility boxes that are already on our streets. Part of me very much wanted to vote against AT&T and for an EIR simply because I dislike the boxes. But one of the commitments that I made to myself, and to the voters, was that I’m not just going to be a reactive elected official. I committed that I was going to be the kind of elected official who tried to find solutions to hard issues. I also committed to myself early on that I would not abuse CEQA by ordering EIRs where the law doesn’t support it simply because I have policy issues with the underlying project. As described below, ordering an EIR here probably would have been illegal and certainly would have fed into our City and State’s addiction to environmental review, with the effect that good projects (including public projects) are delayed, killed, or made much more expensive than they need to be.
The issue here was very hard — pretty much everyone agrees that Comcast is in desperate need of competition while also agreeing that these boxes stink. There were also incredibly strong views on both sides of this issue. I received many emails from opponents, passionately and articulately describing the issues with the boxes, and from proponents, passionately and articulately describing why we need the service and competition. This was a no-win vote for me in terms of popularity contests. Either way I voted was going to make one group or the other upset with me. But, for better or for worse, casting controversial votes is what we do at the Board. If I wanted to be loved by everyone all the time, I wouldn’t have run for office.
And, this issue pointed to a major problem we have in San Francisco. We do a bad job managing our sidewalks. Our departments don’t coordinate well. We don’t have a strong master plan. We haven’t fully implemented the Better Streets Plan. That plan is how we should be managing our sidewalks and deciding what to put on them and where. Not through CEQA, which is a blunt instrument that doesn’t get you much other than delay and expense, but through actually having a plan for our sidewalks. As described below, through a strong and well-planned permitting system, we can do that.
So, why did I, in the end, tip in favor of voting to reject the appeal?
1. Not an appropriate CEQA issue: This was not a vote on the merits of the project or on whether to issue permits and where. This was an appeal under CEQA, of the Planning Department’s determination that the project was exempt from a full-blown environmental impact report. While the exemption was not 100% clear cut as a matter of law, it’s pretty clear that the exemption was properly granted, since there is an exemption in CEQA for utility boxes. Past Boards of Supervisors have used CEQA as a tool to achieve certain ends even when it doesn’t really apply (i.e., killing projects they don’t like). I don’t like to do that, and to its credit, the current Board has abandoned this practice to date. CEQA abuse has been a problem in San Francisco and in California generally. Instead of addressing projects on the merits, we try to save or kill them through CEQA. That’s not appropriate.
In my view, it’s important not to apply CEQA inappropriately to accomplish another end. I believe that’s what would’ve occurred here had we sustained the appeal. I never heard a truly credible legal argument that this project was required to undergo an EIR. Indeed, ordering an EIR here — something that has never happened before in San Francisco for placement of utility boxes on sidewalks — would have set a terrible precedent. After all, we have to apply CEQA fairly and equally. Do we really want to require DPW to undergo an expensive and lengthy EIR (costing hundreds of thousands or millions of scarce DPW dollars) next time it decides to place 500 much-needed trash cans on our sidewalks? Do we really want to require MTA to undergo an EIR when it decides to place new traffic control signals, and the resulting boxes, on our sidewalks? That’s the precedent we would have set.
2. EIR wouldn’t have stopped the project, just delayed it: Even had we ordered an EIR, that wouldn’t have stopped the project. AT&T simply could have undergone an EIR and then proceeded with the project or sued us for improperly ordering an EIR. Had that all occurred, then the community benefits and processes described below would have been off the table. I determined that given the likelihood that AT&T would have been able to proceed with the project at some point anyway, it was best to negotiate a good process now. 3. AT&T reduced its target number of boxes by 1/3, from 726 to 495.
4. Undergrounding not a viable option: If undergrounding had been a viable option, I would’ve led the charge to force AT&T to do that, no matter the cost. But, after months of being immersed in this issue, I have yet to see any credible evidence that it’s viable. Undergrounding the boxes would require construction of a large underground room, large enough for a technician to safely go down and to have climate control. That, of course, would have led to hundreds of major excavation sites around the city. In many locations, undergrounding would’ve been impossible because of interference with underground wires and sewers. Moreover, because of the need for climate control, undergrounding would still have required a box above the underground vault — i.e., a box on the sidewalk. I never saw a credible counter to this, and neither I nor my colleagues, to my knowledge, actually believed that undergrounding was a viable alternative.
5. Permit and neighborhood processes — neighbors will have a say and won’t get a box if they don’t want one: AT&T cannot place boxes on the sidewalk without obtaining a permit from DPW. DPW has discretion to grant or deny that permit, and a grant of a permit can be appealed to a hearing officer and then to the Board of Appeals. AT&T has agreed that before it applies for a permit, it will notify all neighbors within 300 feet of the box by mail (that’s almost one block in all directions), the neighborhood association if there is one, and my office. AT&T will work with the neighbors to find an appropriate site for the box. If there’s significant opposition, on a block or in a neighborhood, AT&T will not place the box there. Moreover, AT&T is giving me, effectively, veto power over all placement decisions. If I tell AT&T not to place a box in a particular neighborhood or street, the box will not go in. I will, of course, be basing my decisions in this regard on feedback from the neighborhoods and neighborhood associations. In other words, you will have significant control over this process, and if a neighborhood or street doesn’t want a box, it won’t get a box. Period.
We will all be particularly sensitive to the width of sidewalks in neighborhoods. Some streets have narrow sidewalks that are already difficult to navigate. It’s hard to imagine it ever being appropriate to place a box on a narrow sidewalk, and I will be very conscious of that (as will you, I’m sure).
6. Attempt to place boxes off of sidewalk: AT&T has committed to looking for locations off of the sidewalk. Some neighborhoods have small alleys that may be appropriate, for example. But all of these placement decisions will be made in conjunction with the impacted neighborhoods.
7. AT&;T has to pay for using the public right-of-way: Under state law, AT&T will have to pay the City 5% of the gross revenue generated by each box each year. Permanently. Comcast currently pays the City $89 million annually. Comcast’s payment will likely go down as AT&T takes customers away, but there’s projected to be a net increase in revenue since AT&T anticipates that a lot of its new customers will not be former Comcast customers.
8. AT&T has agreed to submit to the City’s surface mounted utility order, which it previously had disputed as illegal. That order provides DPW with the power to order AT&T to make streetscaping and design changes to compensate for the placement of the box. This can include bulbouts, screening, benches, street art, etc. Neighborhoods are encouraged to come up with ideas in this regard.
9. AT&T has agreed to fund staffing in the Planning Department to ensure that the placement of the boxes complies with the Better Streets Plan (http://www.sf-planning.org/ftp/BetterStreets/index.htm). In other words, there will be a staffer in the Planning Department whose job will be to ensure that these boxes are not just dumped on the sidewalk. This staffer will work with AT&T, with me, and with the neighborhoods to maximize the fitting in of the boxes with the streetscapes. I’m already in the process of convening a meeting with DPW and Planning to ensure that they are coordinating and have a solid plan in place. I’ve requested that they not issue any new permits to AT&T before they have this plan, and proper staffing, in place.
10. AT&T has agreed to fund staffing in DPW to compensate the city for DPW’s time in working with this issue, to coordinate DPW with Planning and with neighborhoods, and to ensure that AT&T is complying with its obligations, including graffiti removal.
11. AT&T has agreed that it will remove any graffiti on boxes within 3 days, and within 48 hours if possible. If it fails to do so, it has agreed that DPW can remove the graffiti and bill AT&T.
12. AT&T has agreed that of the hundreds of jobs created by this build, at least 1/3 will be locally hired.
I hope that this email has been useful in explaining my position. Feel free to email or call me to discuss. I’m also, as always, happy to meet with any neighborhood group to talk about this issue or the hundreds of other issues I’m dealing with here at City Hall and in the district. Thank you.
Member, San Francisco Board of Supervisors