Tag Archives: ceqa

Brown, Newsom clash over merits of obstruction

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Zorro drew his sword. Paladin went for his gun. TJ Hooker whipped out his stick. When in peril, Californian heroes find salvation in a sure and deadly weapon. In our finest tradition, lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom faced the looming threat of Donald Trump’s wall, shouted not in my backyard and brandished the ultimate equaliser: the California Environmental Quality Act. According to the Los Angeles Times

“There’s something called CEQA in California — NEPA at the federal level,” Newsom said. “There’s indigenous lands and autonomies relating to governance on those lands. There are all kinds of obstructions as it relates to just getting zoning approval and getting building permits. All those things could be made very, very challenging for the administration.”

I’m not saying the wall is a good idea. Nor am I suggesting opposition to it is a bad thing. If you’re against it, you should oppose it by any legitimate means possible.

The point I’m making has nothing to do with the wall and everything to do with the seductive power of laws and processes that were intended to promote thoughtful stewardship of land and resources, but have instead become tools that allow anyone with a grievance – real or imagined – to block infrastructure development.

Around the same time that Newsom was making his stand, governor Jerry Brown called out for regulatory reform, to solve California’s housing shortage…

What we can do is cut the red tape, cut the delays, cut whatever expenses we can afford to do without to make housing more affordable and therefore increase the stock and therefore hopefully bring down the costs.

You want affordable housing, efficient transportation and fast broadband? Then someone has to grab a shovel and dig. But if the cost of a project is doubled or tripled, or if it is hopelessly tangled in endless challenges, then ground will never be broken.

Newsom’s defiance is no threat to Trump’s wall. Federal preemption is a simple fix that can be baked into any authorising bill. But Newsom’s example legitimises self centered nimbys and rent seekers, and impedes reform of well meaning laws that they have warped into weapons of woe.

Enviro fast track for LA network, slow lane for lifeline okayed by governor

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Two more telecoms-related bills have been signed by governor Jerry Brown, and several more – of greater consequence – are hanging in the balance with four days to go before his veto deadline.

Without comment, Brown approved assembly bill 2570 and senate bill 1008. AB 2570 deals with restrictions on low income lifeline telephone (and broadband) subsidies and was watered down in the final days of the legislative session. As originally written by assemblyman Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), anyone who signs up for a subsidised service plan would be stuck with that carrier for a minimum of two months. As ultimately approved by the legislature and, now, the governor, it only asked the California Public Utilities Commission to consider imposing a two month waiting period, which it is already thinking about doing anyway.

SB 1008 is a very tightly targeted bill that extends a previous waiver Los Angeles County received that allows it to slice through any environmental red tape that might delay a public safety communications network project. It’s interesting mainly for the possible precedent it might set: if building a tower in a particularly set of circumstances for public safety purposes warrants a fast pass through the California Environmental Quality Act minefield, then why shouldn’t commercial facilities in similar circumstances get the same treatment? That’s a question for the next legislature when it begins work next year, though.

We’re still awaiting the governor’s decision on three CPUC reform measures, SB 62, SB 215 and SB 512. Those would, respectively, create a safety advocate, clamp down on back room conversations between interest parties – including regulated utilities – and CPUC decision makers, and generally open up CPUC proceedings to greater public scrutiny. Arguably, AB 650 falls in the same bucket – it would preempt most local regulation of the taxi business.

SB 745 by senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) is also on the governor’s desk. It extends the deadline for applying for grants to install broadband facilities in public housing, and market the services to residents. It also bans those subsidies from being spent in public housing communities where incumbent cable and/or telephone companies are already selling service, even when it’s at a much higher price that’s out of reach of most residents.

California legislature approves LA fast track wireless reviews, sorta

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The way California law works now, if a permit application for a new cell tower is held up for more than five months because of reviews or challenges resulting from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), then the permit is deemed approved. Yep, regardless of whatever other issues are involved, once the shot clock expires, permission to build a new cell tower is automatically granted.

Suppose, though, that CEQA didn’t apply to…

  1. Antennas, including microwave dishes and arrays.
  2. Antenna support structures.
  3. Equipment enclosures.
  4. Central system switch facilities.
  5. Associated foundations and equipment.

If…

The project site…already contains either of the following:

  • An antenna support structure and either of the following components:
  • Antennas.
  • Equipment enclosures.

Well, that’s the way it’ll continue to work for a next generation public safety radio system in Los Angeles County, assuming it’s happening on public property and it passes a simple environment check. And assuming governor Brown signs senate bill 1008, which landed on his desk last week.

The exemption was originally granted in 2012, and is being extended because it’s taking a really long time to build. It’s also limited, in the grand scheme of things. Big as it it, it’s lilliputian compared to the infrastructure deployed by a typical mobile carrier.

But at its core, there’s a sound principle at work: when time is critical – shot clocks included – chop out the impenetrable undergrowth of endless procedures, reviews and appeals and eliminate obsessive minutia, and instead identify on genuine problems. And solve them quickly. Or deny the application just as fast.

The Federal Communications Commission is preparing for more preemptions of state and local authority over wireless facility colocation and tower construction projects. In order to effectively exercise what little discretion remains, cities and counties can’t be trapped like a kitten in ball of yarn by byzantine statutes and case law that drag decisions out for years.

If red tape could carry data, California would lead the broadband world

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A Shasta County broadband project is trapped in California’s web of environmental regulations, and it’s going to cost taxpayers $400,000 or more to pull it out. Not to mention that the rural phone company building the project has to stump up a few hundred thousand dollars of its own.

In 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $3.1 million grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) to the Happy Valley Telephone Company to pay for 60% of the cost of upgrading its network in and around the small Shasta County town of Olinda to VDSL2 technology. It involved installing new electronics and building 16 miles of connecting fiber.

CASF rules make it plain that successful applicants have to submit environmental assessment information to the CPUC before work can begin, to ensure compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). What wasn’t clear at the time was that the CPUC was going to turn around and charge for doing that review. According to a draft resolution recommending an increase in Happy Valley’s grant

Following award of the grant on October 3, 2013, Happy Valley submitted its [preliminary environmental assessment] to [the CPUC’s] Energy Division’s CEQA Team, and learned that it would cost an additional $666,422 or $771,630 for the CEQA Team’s consultant to review their PEA and draft either a Mitigated Negative Declaration or an Environmental Impact Report. Based on this estimate by the CEQA consultant, E&E, Happy Valley requests 60% of this amount from the CASF, which amounts to either $399,853.20 or $436,978.

In the past, the CPUC has approved extra money for CASF projects that ran over budget due to the cost of jumping through hard coded environmental hoops, among other red tape. Common sense says that stringing 16 miles of fiber optic cable or, god forbid, burying it will do no actual harm to the environment in one of California’s rural communities. At least nothing that’s going to cost $700,000 or $800,000 just to figure out. We’re not talking about running a bulldozer through old growth redwoods. But so long as imaginary adverse impacts hold the attention of predominantly urban lawmakers, Californians will have to endure the very real economic damage done by these rules.

Wireless permit shot clock primer for Californian planners

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Sharp limits on local review of proposed cellular sites and other wireless facilities went into effect in California at the beginning of the year. It’s the result of a new law passed last year – assembly bill 57 – that put teeth into Federal Communications Commission shot clock rules that say cities and counties have to make a decision on permit applications within 90 days if it’s adding equipment to an existing site or 150 days if it’s completely new. In California now, if the shot clock runs out, the permit is automatically deemed approved.

That’s on top of another FCC rule that sets a 60-day shot clock with deemed granted provisions for smaller collocations.

Omar Masry, the former wireless permit guru at the City and County of San Francisco (he’s with the mayor’s office now) co-wrote with attorney Robert May an excellent article with some detailed suggestions for local planning and public works officials who have to deal with the new rules. At the top of the list is advice to be very careful about carefully reviewing any new permit applications, and reject as incomplete ones where…

  • Any existing on-site wireless facilities were not built, modified or maintained correctly (request current site photos and prior plans/permits in submittal forms).
  • There are current Municipal (Building, Fire) Code Violations at the Project Site.
  • Commonly expected submittal items are missing. Determine if based on local practice, whether specific exhibits (geo-technical, archaeological surveys, Phase I reports, and environmental evaluations) should be required for freestanding facilities, or facilities with other major ground disturbances (excavations, access roads, fuel tanks, new equipment/building pads). Indicate these requirements up-front on the application forms.

Rejecting incomplete applications is the only way to stop the clock, other than by mutual agreement with the cell tower or wireless company. That rejection can’t be arbitrary, so a detailed checklist of required items is needed to ensure due process and make sure nothing is missed. If you’re involved in either building or reviewing permits for wireless facilities of any kind, Masry’s article is a must read.

Blocking improvement hurts the environment too

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I don’t know if anyone has ever specifically asked, but if I had to bet I’d guess that most Californians would rate traffic congestion as a bigger problem than Internet speeds. Occasionally waiting a few seconds while Netflix buffers is annoying. Spending an hour in traffic just to travel a handful of miles is soul destroying. It’s no coincidence that three Silicon Valley companies – Google, Apple and Tesla – are at the forefront of self-driving car development. There’s nothing an uber geek hates more than being forced to spend an hour or two of prime thinking time staring at the barely moving bumper of the next car ahead.

It’s a pity then, that California’s environmental review process doesn’t give credit for reducing existing problems, rather than just handing out demerits for any conceivable infringements. In reading through the 400-plus pages of San Jose’s environmental assessment of Google’s potential fiber build, it seems perverse that the effect of an extra maintenance truck or two on city streets needs to be explained away, while the potential for reducing car trips by the thousands doesn’t count for much. The study mentions it, but only by way of saying honest, it doesn’t conflict with local policies or plans

Throughout the operation of the proposed Project, the increased access to high-speed internet supports the objective of transportation demand management identified in the Santa Clara County Congestion Management Program (VTA 2013). As part of the plan, the strategies used to manage transportation demand are the use of telecommuting and new working arrangements. These strategies are possible through the “computer facilities that link to the worksite” including high-speed internet. When telecommuting and new work arrangements are available, they reduce [vehicle miles traveled] and increases accessibility.

The California environmental quality act – CEQA – gives Nimbys all the tools they need to stall or pick apart any kind of infrastructure upgrade on the basis of the flimsiest hypothetical impacts imaginable. Far greater benefits often take a back seat, with the cost of delays or the harm of maintaining the status quo never considered and those responsible never held to account.

Accelerating technological change triggers regulatory reflex in Santa Cruz

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San Francisco voters decisively rejected an attempt to clamp stiff limits on Airbnb and other online platforms that make it possible for people to rent out spare rooms and empty houses by the day. The measure was on the ballot in the first place “because the hotel industry is threatened”, said California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom. He was the keynote speaker at the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s state of the region conference in Santa Cruz.

It’s not only the hotel industry that’s feeling the heat. Property owners can often make more money on a daily basis via Airbnb and similar outfits than they can renting out houses and apartments by the month. Reducing the supply of traditional rental properties raises the price. It’s no surprise, just simple microeconomics.

One solution is to embrace the market and build more places to live. But whether it’s meant for the open market or government managed programs – so called affordable housing – new construction faces vocal opposition from neighborhoods and seemingly endless regulatory hurdles. “If there’s one thing I would do, it is change CEQA [the California environmental quality act] to make it possible to build more housing in ways that are predictable”, Lynn Reaser, chief economist at the Fermian Business and Economic Institute told the audience.

That’s not likely to happen. Newsom made it clear that it’s a third rail he won’t step on – he jokingly said he was willing to get out front on “marriage and marijuana” but not CEQA.

Which leaves regulation as the tool of choice for confronting the law of supply and demand, something Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane favors. “The greatest need we have in our communities is affordable housing, more than visitor accomodations”, he said.

Managing a shortage is not the same thing as fixing it, though. Newsom said that economic change is accelerating. “The tech genie is out of the bottle, you can’t stop the future”, he said.

Gigabit for San Jose could cost Google a gigabuck

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The environmental review of Google’s possible fiber optic network in San Jose includes a surprisingly detailed description of the network, including diagrams of the local distribution system with breakouts by aerial and conduit routes. It’s a good primer for anyone interested in learning how a fiber to the home network is designed and built. According to the report…

Google Fiber’s FTTP infrastructure consists of four primary elements. In essence, the architecture of the FTTP build involves (1) installation of a Fiber Ring, (2) which is connected to Local Aggregation Sites (LASs), (3) which then connects to vaults (underground or in above-ground cabinets), and (4) finally connects to customers…

The majority of the approximately 2,300 miles (12,144,000 linear feet) of conduit required for the proposed Project would be installed using five construction methods―aerial installation, rock- sawing, HDD, and trenching/micro-trenching. Google Fiber anticipates 60 percent utilization of rock-sawing/HDD/trenching methods and 40 percent utilization of aerial installation, subject to change based on final design and construction constraints. The ratio could reach 80 and 20 percent underground and aerial installation, respectively, depending upon pole conditions.

Network construction costs alone could be on the order of half a billion dollars. That’s assuming a cost of $25 a foot to hang fiber on poles, including getting existing poles ready and replacing ones that are too far gone, and $50 a foot to install conduit. Could it be less? Yes. Could it be more? Hell yes.

Then you add in the cost of connecting to San Jose’s 300,000 or so homes, plus electronics, plus fiber huts, plus everything else it takes to start a business of that scale, and the tab creeps closer to a cool billion.

Even if Google decides to build an FTTH network in San Jose – it’s far from certain at this point – it likely won’t be spending anywhere near that much money initially. The Google Fiber strategy is to cherrypick neighborhoods based on early interest, and then build slowly from there. Even so, it’s an impressive investment.

City of San Jose’s draft initial study and mitigated negative declaration for citywide Google Fiber
Network diagrams (extracted from the above report)
Appendix A: typical facilities and fiber hut site plans
Appendix B: air quality report
Appendix C: noise report

Google Fiber gets initial enviro okay in San Jose, could be model for California

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I hope they survey me, Robin. The Batcave still has dial up.

Google Fiber is taking a harder look at San Jose. The city has prepared the initial environmental assessment, more than 400 pages long, which declares there will be no significant environmental impact if Google builds out a fiber to the home system there

The proposed Project includes the following components: The installation of approximately 2,300 miles of fiber optic cables (consisting of about 1,340 miles of below ground installation and 960 miles of aerial installation using existing utility poles); the installation of approximately ten Local Aggregation Sites either inside pre-fabricated communications shelters (fiber huts) or enclosed within existing commercial buildings; underground utility vaults and utility cabinets; and connections directly to customers. With the exception of the Local Aggregation Sites and connections to customers, the fiber cables, vaults, and cabinets will be located within existing public right-of-ways or easements.

That’s not to say there’s absolutely no possibility of environmental degradation. This is California, after all. So among things, biologist will check for nesting birds before work is done, and if any trees have to be cut down, a bat survey will be done. Workers will get special training so they can spot anything of historical or archeological value. There are special procedures to be used around waterways and conditions relating to noise and air quality. And it goes on. But the bottom line is…

The project described above will not have a significant effect on the environment in that the attached initial study identifies one or more potentially significant effects on the environment for which the applicant, before public release of this draft Mitigated Negative Declaration, has made or agrees to make project revisions that clearly mitigate the effects to a less than significant level.

It’s not time to pop the champagne corks yet. Both city and Google reps have said no decision on whether to build out in San Jose, or other Silicon Valley cities, has been made (h/t to the Baller-Herbst list for the pointer). If it ever happens, it won’t be before the environmental review is completed. Now that the initial report has been posted, there’s a 30 day window, which closes on 12 November 2015, for anyone to challenge it.

It appears that San Jose has reached some kind of agreement with Google for blanket permission to build the network. The report references a “master encroachment permit from the department of public works for work in the public right of way”, for example. If this can get past the Nimbys, it could be a template for broadband development throughout California.

We can only hope.

City of San Jose’s draft initial study and mitigated negative declaration for citywide Google Fiber
Appendix A: typical facilities and fiber hut site plans
Appendix B: air quality report
Appendix C: noise report

California wireless shot clock might trump environmental reviews

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A pretty simple decision.

The California Environmental Quality Act – CEQA – has evolved into a powerful tool for Nimbys and others who want to say no to infrastructure projects or other construction work. The seemingly endless possibilities for reviews, questions and appeals can stall projects for years, with no discernible benefit to either the environment or communities. Except for people who simply want to delay the process, in the hopes of killing projects drip by drip.

Assembly bill 57, which was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor last week, puts a time limit – a shot clock – on that process for wireless infrastructure, 150 days for new facilities and 90 days for add ons to existing ones. It allows for limited extensions of those deadlines, but there’s no opportunity to stall it indefinitely, without going to court. The staff analysis done for the California senate points out that there’s no exception for CEQA…

AB 57 is silent on several aspects relating to [pausing] the shot clock, including whether the shot clock is [paused] for:

1)Environmental review pursuant to CEQA; 2)Public notice as required by the state’s open meetings laws-as opposed to the notice that the applicants themselves are required to provide; 3)Appeals of decisions on wireless facilities to the legislative bodies of cities and counties.

However, local governments may not be able to complete those activities before an application is deemed complete under AB 57. As a result, they face the difficult choice of cutting short these important processes, reducing the time that they have to review applications, or denying permits and facing litigation.

Cutting processes short and reducing the time for review is actually the point of the law. Towers are not complicated and there’s only limited scope – legally – for a local agency to deny a permit or impose conditions. Bolting new equipment on – within the defined limits – should be a no-brainer.

The real question is: what happens if the shot clock runs out and environmental reviews aren’t complete?

The law simply says “a collocation or siting application for a wireless telecommunications facility…shall be deemed approved if…the city or county fails to approve or disapprove the application within a reasonable period of time”, in other words within the 150/90 day shot clock rule. At that point, any loose ends, environmental or otherwise, are deemed tied off.

The plain English interpretation won’t fly right off the bat, but the inevitable court fights will begin with the presumption that permits are deemed approved. That’s a big improvement on the eternal litigation we have now.

If it works as hoped, it could be a model for other types of infrastructure projects, broadband and otherwise.