Is Sutro quake-safe? Supes won't decide
Neighbors stunned as city attorney blocks appeal hearing

By Emily Soares

The Independent, April 21, 1998
(quoted with permission)

Days before the Board of Supervisors was to hear Twin Peaks residents' appeal of a crucial decision in the plan to add a digital antenna to Sutro Tower, neighbors were shocked to learn that the city attorney had ordered the matter struck from the hearing calendar.

Neighbors had worked for weeks to prepare for the April 20 hearing, where they were hoping to receive a decision on their request for decertification of the environmental impact report (EIR) that had been approved for the 12-ton antenna addition. The EIR was approved in February by the Planning Commission.

City Attorney Louise Renne issued her decision on Thursday, stating that the Board of Supervisors was not the proper "decision-making body" to hear an appeal of the project. But her determination could change if new information is introduced, Renne told the Independent.

Debra Stein of GCA Strategies, lobbyist for Sutro Tower, says that the California Environmental Quality Act has a "very narrow definition" of what constitutes a "legally appointed decision-making body" when it comes to appeals. Such a body is one that has the "ability to approve or disapprove a project," said Stein, in a 42 page response to resident appeals.

Out of board's hands

The problem, says deputy city attorney Judith Boyajian, is that the tower operates under a blanket conditional-use approval granted in the late 1960s, that takes oversight out of the Board of Supervisors' hands.

Permits issued under such conditional-use authorization are not appealable, says Boyajian. The only way for the board to have jurisdiction in this case, she says, is for there to be a change in the tower's conditional-use agreement.

That leaves filing a lawsuit as the only option for residents and unless Renne changes her mind, that is just what they may do, Twin Peaks residents told the Independent.

Safety concerns

For residents and structural engineers who are concerned about the tower's seismic stability, especially in light of new information gathered in the wake of the Kobe, Japan, and Northridge quakes, the city attorney's decision has created one more hurdle in an uphill battle to have more testing done on the structure.

"We are extremely concerned that we were denied our due process rights," said Christine Linenbach of the Twin Peaks Improvement Association. She said that neighbors, weeks ago, asked to be given 10 days to respond to any documents Sutro Tower Inc. would submit against the residents' appeal, but they were notified that there was a jurisdictional problem only days before the scheduled hearing, she said.

"For them to pull this out from under us on the Thursday before the meeting is perverse," said Linnebach, who noted that the wording used by the City Attorney's Office in its decision was strikingly similar to Sutro Tower's argument against the appeal hearing.

Missing files, lost reports

Neighbors say this is not the first instance in which public concerns about the tower have met with irregular protocol on the part of the city.

For months, Twin Peaks residents have been requesting files and tapes from past Planning Commission hearings on the tower, and much of the material has, according to the Departments of Planning and Building Inspection, been misplaced.

All tower maintenance records that predate the Loma Prieta earthquake are also missing, and neither the Department of Building Inspection nor Sutro Tower Inc. can offer any idea s to where the records might be.

Residents' access to a tape recoding of a 1970 hearing on the tower, during which questions regarding its structural design were raised, has also met with unusual obstacles, according to Linnenbach.

Initially told that the tapes were lost, Linnenbach said, she was informed by a department employee that the tapes were being stored in a department closet. "Inside the box was a copy of my mother's letter requesting [access to] the tapes," she said, "and the only reel, out of an entire series that was missing was the one we wanted."

For residents who say they've spent hundreds of dollars in preparing for the dismissed hearing, Renne's decision means that one more door has closed on what they see as a public-safety issue. "We've been precluded from participating in the public process," said Linnenbach.

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