July 21, 2011

Scott Wiener: Why I Voted Yes On AT&T U-Verse

A typical AT&T U-verse box
The AT&T U-verse vote squeaked through the Board of Supes this week, and the long-delayed high-speed phone/Internet/TV project will soon be rolled out citywide. The first installations are reportedly headed for the Sunset and Richmond districts, but eventually 32 AT&T communications boxes are tentatively headed for Noe sidewalks as well.

Our own District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener voted in support of the U-verse roll out, and sent this note explaining why:
From: <Scott.Wiener@sfgov.org;
Date: Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 4:41 PM
Subject: My vote on the AT&T issue
To: Scott.Wiener@sfgov.org
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.
Scott Wiener
Member, San Francisco Board of Supervisors
District 8
(415) 554-6968

[Photo: SFGate]


Anonymous said...

what AT&T agrees to do and what they actually do not be the same. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for my typo above:

what AT&T agrees to do and what they actually do may not be the same. Good luck.

Sean Ryan said...

As always with Scott, it's a well though out response to a thorny issue. We are fortunate to have him as our D8 supervisor

murphstahoe said...

They should put something in there "If we agree to let us put in these boxes, you agree to fix problems with your DSL service within X hours or pay substantial penalty".

I bet ATT would find a pretty creative solution very quickly.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I wonder how much AT&T would be willing to pay in rent to put one of those boxes under my front steps.

Anonymous said...

I wonder: will those big boxes emit bad things that would be harmful things around it?

Nails Doverspike said...

Read carefully. Remember folks ATT still has to go through the permit process. :>}

Anonymous said...

At the very least they should shrink wrap them with cool photos that will blend. In Vancouver they have things like this wrapped with a photo of a forest or some iconic structure in the city. They actually blend in quite nicely. I realize it doesn't compensate for any other issues you may have with these boxes but it certainly will be more visually pleasing.

murphstahoe said...

rocky's dad can design some architecturally pleasing planter boxes that can be attatched to them to get more greenery on our sidewalks!

Brooke & Jez said...

Do those things give off RF radiation?

Brooke & Jez said...

Speaking of which, Smart Meters are now hitting Noe Valley -- they were just installed in our building (without our consent -- not that anyone has a choice). Have other folks been getting them? I'm also concerned about the untested short- and long-term effects they may have on people's health due to RF radiation.

Anonymous said...

What's with all the trolls lately?

Anonymous said...

I was listening to Rush Limbaugh today, he was interviewing the CEO of PG&E and they said that RF radiation is good for your health. We should in fact be accellerating adoption of them.

cyenne said...

They are installing smart meters all over Noe Valley ....I got a notice for our house on Alvarado and business on 24th and heard from a friend they had been installing them on 23rd

Anonymous said...

No, they don't give of RF radiation. If you don't believe me, buy a RF Field Strength meter like this one and test for yourself: http://www.google.com/products/catalog?client=safari&rls=en&q=rf+field+strength+meter&oe=UTF-8&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=3357727648034975772&sa=X&ei=YXVDToOVD6bViAK4z8DgAg&ved=0CFwQ8gIwAQ

Anonymous said...

Also, the SF Water Department is rolling out "Automated Water Meters" which are the water version of the PG&E smartmeters. Read about it here: http://sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=51

Anonymous said...

Good Job Scott. I'm pretty sure some behind the scenes handshakes are going on with Comcast and some of our other so called "representatives". It's great to finally have an real option other than comcast in Noe Valley. Monopolies never are good for the customer. You have a new fan. Thank you for standing up for common sense and freedom of choice. I wish there were more like you. Cheers...Paul.

Denis M. said...

If you do not want a SMART meter installed, contact TURN and they will provide you with a downloadable poster to post near your meter, and the phone number at PG&E to tell them you do not want one. The PG&E person will try to talk you out of it, but if you stand your ground, they will take your demand and "put you on the schedule at the end of the installations in your area". The longer you stall, the more information is learned about the radiation and its potential for harm.

Omar said...

Has there been any discussion around the possibility of bringing Verizon FiOS to the city instead? The utility boxes it requires are significantly smaller.

Unconcerned Noe Neighbor said...

You all live in one of the most technologically advanced cities on Earth, I would hope you'd know better than complaining about antiscience bullshit like the "dangers" of electromagnetic radiation.