At first, we thought there may be no Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday. A quick second look shows there to be a one-item agenda that may or may not go quickly. That’s because it brings up the resolution denying the design permit for a number of U-verse boxes AT&T has been trying to install in our town for, at some estimates, 15 years.
More than 10 years ago, AT&T applied for the installation of nearly 100 utility boxes in the city. The original application was turned down and the project languished in the halls of Ma Bell for several years until another, more serious attempt was made in 2005. Calling these “upgrades”, somewhere along the way the city discovered that much -if not all- of the installations were actually going to house new equipment that would include computers and fiber optic equipment for the U-verse technology AT&T invented to bring fiber optic quality internet and TV to the public. Back then, the boxes would all be above ground and a bit bigger than the current SAI boxes that house the copper wire phone and internet equipment we all see around town.
We don’t know if it was the aesthetics or the tacitcs that soured the Community Development Department. We do know that, when city staff discovered the switch, they were quick to deny the application as it had been presented. And, once again, the project lay (mostly) dormant. Fast forward to November, 2013.
At the November 12th hearing, AT&T made an application to install 25 VRAD boxes around the city to further their U-verse environment in the city. For more than an hour and a half, Leslie Monty, an engineer who represents AT&T fielded questions and answered commission concerns. Well, sort of. If we may digress: If Ma Bell wants to sell the product, they need someone who is prepared and unafraid to speak in front of a crowd bigger than say, five people. Monty’s discussion was less than adequate and amounted to AT&T’s opposition to any changes to their original application.
She did say that AT&T was opposed to painting the cabinets because, supposedly, the beige and green the cabinets are normally painted to aid in dispersing heat (so, why do the new VRAD boxes have AC built in) and that their technology did not allow for underground installation, another request from the city.
She later came back and said that any underground installation would require an access area that would be significantly larger than the underground vault itself and, if I heard right, would require an upper structure anyway to house the AC. She couldn’t answer why other utilities seemed to have overcome that problem and maintained that underground units were incompatible with their current technology.
Further questioning revealed the underlying issue: money, of course. The cost of placing utilities in underground vaults is, to no one’s surprise, more expensive than setting ugly boxes above ground in front of peoples homes.
Now, the city did say that only 4 of the boxes had to be underground. It was just a preference for the other boxes. Those four boxes were eliminated from the revised project presented in January of this year. At that meeting, the commissioners were looking for ways to get this project approved as it would offer another choice to consumers. But, they were pretty unified that a project would not go through if it impacted the aesthetics of the community.
Several of the commissioners, particularly Ryder Smith the self-appointed nerd on the dais, asked about camouflaging the boxes with art work as has been done in Santa Ana and other
communities. The city does have a goal to establish a public art program in the future and wanted an option to at least make the boxes more presentable than the beige and green globs we are used to seeing.
Oh, no, that wouldn’t be possible. According to AT&T’s Monty, the technology has not reached far enough to allow proper cooling, even with an AC unit, unless the boxes are painted an ugly beige or green color. And, even if they could be, the boxes which are supposedly painted with anti-graffiti paint, would no longer be warrantied.
We swear, we are not making this up.
In the end, the commission voted to deny the design review for the VRAD cabinet project in its entirety. The chief concerns came down to AT&T’s opposition to complying with design guidelines that had been established years ago and that they were well aware of. Added to that were concerns over resident objections. As Commissioner Lumbard said, “I know our residents are not going to be pleased when there’s a box in front of their house or, in front of the store they’d like to go to or on the side of the street where they park their car.”
Of real concern to us at Our Town Tustin is the makeup of the 3-2 vote of denial. It seems that Commissioners Jeff Thompson and Ryder Smith decided the boxes would be OK. In fact Thompson, adding minor and inconsequential changes, made a motion to adopt the original design review. Stating that he believed AT&T when they said that underground technology for the equipment cabinets just wasn’t there, he readily moved the item. And, although Chair Steve Kozak seconded the motion, he later withdrew it, saying he only seconded it for purposes of discussion.
The reason we bring this up is because there are two Planning Commission seats open for appointment by the city council. One of those is Thompson’s. And, although he has applied for reappointment, we wonder if he has not outlived his usefulness on this influential panel. Over the past couple of years we have noticed he has not had the best interests of the residents in every issue that has come before the planning commission. This is not the first time he has danced a soft shoe in trying to accommodate a business or utility. He continuously worked to compromise the untenable Wilcox debacle and other recent issues in Old Town, even though he is a resident there. Jeff’s best qualification for the seat is his civil engineering background. We would argue, however, that is what the Community Development Department is for. In our opinion, it is time for a change.
Next stop, should AT&T choose, the Tustin City Council where, presumably, AT&T has friends…