Dirty Panels No Cause for Alarm on SF Sidewalks

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A state appeals court refused to block AT&T’s plans for 726 new utility boxes, despite claims by neighborhood groups that the cabinets would attract graffiti and public urination.
     AT&T plans to install the boxes as part of its “Lightspeed” project to upgrade broadband speed with an expanded fiber optic network throughout San Franicsco. The company applied for an environmental review exemption for the project, which city officials granted in 2007.
     Neighborhood groups – including plaintiffs San Francisco Beautiful, San Francisco Tomorrow, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, Portrero Boosters Neighborhood Association and Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association – complained about the size of the planned cabinets. They said the cabinets would block sidewalks, obstruct views, and attract vandals and urine.
     After a public meeting in 2008, AT&T took the comments to heart and downsized both the number and size of the utility boxes. The company also promised safer placement of the boxes and to slap a decal on each box with a phone number for residents to report graffiti – which AT&T said it would clean.
     Before city leaders could approve the updated plan, however, the neighborhood groups sued. They asked the trial court to order an environmental impact report with mitigation measures addressing their concerns, as the California Environmental Quality Act requires – requests the court later denied.
     On appeal, the groups claimed San Francisco officials made a mistake in determining the project qualified for a CEQA exemption that is typically applied to upgrades of existing utility structures. They argued the project’s 726 new boxes can’t be considered “a limited number” under CEQA, and also involves installing new structures rather than upgrading existing boxes.
     But writing for a panel of the First Appellate District, Judge Maria Rivera said that the project qualifies for the environmental exemption thanks to regulations passed by city leaders in 2005 that govern utility structures built on or under San Francisco’s 122 million square feet of sidewalks.
     The panel also rejected the groups’ call for a review due to “significant environmental impacts.”
     “Plaintiffs have not identified any way in which the utility boxes would create impacts that would ‘differ from the general circumstances of the projects covered by’ the exemption, or for that matter any circumstances that ‘create an environmental risk that does not exist for the general class of exempt projects,'” Rivera wrote, citing 2002’s Communities for a Better Environment v. California Resources Agency. “The record indicates that the city has, at a minimum, tens of thousands of street-mounted facilities including: 1,100 bus shelters, 13,000 MUNI-maintained poles, 132 cabinets to support MUNI operations, 33 advertising kiosks, 5,800 signalized intersections, 25 automatic toilets, 113 kiosks, 744 news racks, 5,151 trolley poles, 21,891 street lights, and five street light controllers, for a total of 47,994 such facilities. This number, however, does not include mail boxes, PG&E surface facilities, water department surface facilities, fire hydrants, or street trees. There is no basis to conclude the addition of 726 additional utility cabinets would be ‘unusual’ in the context of the city’s urban environment, which is already replete with facilities mounted on the public rights-of-way.”
     MUNI is San Francisco’s public transportation system, which uses both buses and electric trams and trains.
     Rivera noted the concerns of residents and even some supervisors and planning commissioners that current utility boxes are “graffiti magnets,” and that additional panels might add to the problem. But public controversy does not automatically require an environmental report when a project calls outside CEQA requirements, Rivera said.
     “We recognize the concern that the new cabinets will become targets for graffiti or public urination,” Rivera wrote. “However, given the presence of numerous other structures on the rights-of-way, there is no basis to conclude people are more likely to engage in those antisocial behaviors in the presence of the cabinets than in their absence – that is, that the cabinets will bring about an increase in this behavior in a way that would rise to a significant impact. On the facts of this case, there is no fair argument they will create a significant environmental impact.”

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