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…
The Tustin City Planning Commission has a busy night with two meetings ahead of them on Tuesday, January 28th. Prior to meeting as the planning commission, they will come together next door to their usual meeting place of the city council chambers, in the Clifton C. Miller Community Center. This will be to act as the Building Board of Appeals for one item. That meeting begins at 6 pm with a Closed Session preceding at 4:30 pm.
That item is the Irvine Company’s appeal from the school fee calculation for property they are developing on the MCAS property. At issue is whether the city may collect fees using what the city calls the Building Division’s standard practice in determining accessible space. The Irvine Company alleges the method the city uses is in direct conflict with state law and that state law supersedes the city’s standard practice.
I would like to say they will be able to work out their differences. However, prior to the meeting is a Closed Session listed only as “Exposure to Litigation – One Case”. I am betting the exposure will be a direct result of the expected determination of the Board of Appeals. Hopefully, they can work out their differences without spending another million dollars on fantasy law. We would suggest the commissioners get their advice from someone other than the City Attorney, who has previously shown his ineptness at advising the city council on legal matters.
The Agenda allows for a one hour meeting prior to the start of the regular Planning Commission meeting, which will take place in the city council chambers as usual.
The regular Planning Commission meeting will host three public hearings as well as two items of regular business, all of which may generate considerable discussion.
Items 2 & 4, Appeal of Denial of Massage Establishment Application – Tustin Day Spa and Le Petite Spa are both related issues. According to the staff reports, the applicants for the permits were the targets of undercover operations at the same addresses that resulted in several “masseuses” being arrested for prostitution. The establishments they were operating in were shut down as a result of the investigations.
It didn’t take much detective work by observant city employees and the police department to determine the applicants were directly involced with the owners of the previously shuttered businesses, attempting to re-open in the same locations with, basically, the same operation.
The Community Development Department is recommending the Planning Commission uphold the denial. We’re no fans of these types of establishments for the obvious reason they take advantage of the women that work there as well as patrons, leaving this less than a victimless crime – allegedly, of course.
We can’t argue with Item Number 2, Conditional Use Permit & Design Review for a wireless cellphone tower masquerading as a eucalyptus tree. The 55 foot Verizon Wireless tower will be located in a business-industrial complex off Jamboree Road and should not present problems for businesses in the area.
Under Regular Business, there may be some discussion regarding Item 5, Design Review – AT&T Utility Cabinets.
The design review is for 25 above-ground utility cabinets located mostly on public rights-of-way throughout Tustin to house and operate equipment for their U-Verse service. The city owns most of the proposed locations.
City staff are proposing three options for the Planning Commission. The first is to adopt a resolution authorizing the installation of the 25 cabinets as a combination of above and underground cabinets.
The second option would allow the 25 cabinets, but all of them would have to be underground. The third option would deny the application altogether. It’s doubtful this option would be taken by the commissioners as AT&T has invested heavily in their infrastructure in the city and would probably not be averse to litigation. Likewise, the city council, to which this would be appealed next, has demonstrated that they are not interested in defending any concerns of Tustin residents when it comes to dealing with the utility companies, regardless of the legitimacy of their reasoning.That leaves the two remaining options or another one determined by the Planning Commission. The only saving grace is that city staff are also not in favor of the project as proposed by AT&T.
According to the staff report, AT&T originally submitted a master plan for upgrading existing and installation of new utility cabinets back in 2007. That design review was denied. AT&T did not move forward with the project again until late last year when another design review was submitted. Commission concerns included AT&T’s opposition to co-locating equipment (sound familiar?) and so-called art/screening of the utility cabinets.
There is no doubt the equipment is or soon will become necessary to effect AT&T internet service in Tustin. I spoke with a representative today and confirmed that, eventually, DSL service will be terminated as newer, state-of-the-art, technology takes its place. And, AT&T’s U-verse entertainment service appears to have all the best parts of cable and satellite TV without the exposed cables we in Old Town Tustin have come to know and hate.The city’s genuine concern over ADA, safety and aesthetic issues, however, may take a back seat to AT&Ts possible threat of litigation. That being the case, it would be a good idea to come up with a workable compromise.
That’s it for the meeting(s) this week. We will keep you informed of anything worth reporting. Now that we ordered our upgrade to U-verse service (hey, we were on the phone with them anyway), it should make it easier to download those lengthy videos.