Sutro Tower neighbors fight on

The Independent, May 5, 1998
(quoted with permission)

By Emily Soares, Staff Writer

It's up to code, but expert panel thinks that's not enough

Twin Peaks neighbors can't understand why the owners of Sutro Tower, who plan to add a 12-ton digital television antenna to the tower and expand equipment at its base, don't have to jump through the same city planning hoops as residents do when they want to add something as minor as a kitchenette to their home.

"This is a low-density, all-the-rules-apply, hands-off district," said Stephen Williams, the attorney representing Twin Peaks residents who are fighting the expansion plan, noting that the industrial facility in the district's midst seems to be getting preferential treatment under the city code.

SiuLing Chen, a Twin Peaks resident and former deputy city attorney, agrees that the antenna project does not comply with the district's R-1 residential zoning guidelines, which identify the area as a zone for detached single-family homes. "Anything not consistent with [R-1] should undergo heightened scrutiny - not what, at this point, seems to be less," she said.

Conditional-use questions

Neighbors now argue that a 1996 decision to fast-track the project should be revoked, given recently proposed additions that would expand the scope of the project.

At issue is whether the antenna project requires conditional use approval - a stringent standard that is applied when a project goes beyond the bounds of a neighborhood's zoning restrictions.

Last month, days before the digital antenna's environmental impact report was to be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors, City Attorney Louise Renne determined that the antenna project was not within the board's jurisdiction.

She based her ruling on the fact that, in 1996, city zoning administrator Bob Passmore determined that the antenna proposal did not require conditional-use review.

But residents, who argue that the antenna project was well within the purview of the board under the California Environmental Quality Act, are pushing for Passmore to rethink his 1996 decision, especially in light of an additional permit sought by Sutro's owners that would increase the scope of the expansion project even further.

A building permit applied for last month, after the antenna addition was approved by the Planning Commission, seeks to construct three "equipment pads" outside of the existing transmitter building, located at the tower's base, and to put an equipment enclosure on the building's roof.

"To do proper environmental review, [the work] all should have been presented at once," said Williams, charging that the recently proposed work at the tower was not evaluated in the project's environmental impact report.

Williams says that the operation of the proposed antenna hinges directly on the proposed equipment additions and that the permit application should have been submitted prior to project approval.

"The antenna is ultimately useless" without the electrical equipment at its base, said Williams. "There's no way they should have been divided," he said of the project elements.

In 1988, an application to expand the tower's transmitter building did trigger a conditional-use hearing, which prompted Sutro Tower to immediately withdraw its permit application.

Residents say that the proposed concrete pads represent a similar expansion and should, therefore, also require new conditional-use approval.

Project lobbyist Debra Stein, who observes that reference to the additional equipment is mad in the environmental impact report's response to comments, says that the proposed equipment pads are in no way similar to work proposed in 1988.

"It's stretching [it] to say that a concrete pad and redwood fencing is the equivalent ... of a major structural expansion of the three-story transmitter building," she said.

Board mulls seismic testing

Passmore says he is considering neighbors' arguments. The question, explains Passmore, is, "Will it go before the commission as a discretionary-review item or ... as a conditional-use item?"

Should the latter occur, neighbors would have the right to bring the project before the Board of Supervisors, despite the city attorney's decision, he explained.

Last week, Supervisors Sue Bierman, Leland Yee, and Tom Ammiano joined the call of residents and some structural engineers for more testing on the tower.

The supervisors presented to the full board a resolution that would require the Department of Building Inspection to have a dynamic analysis performed on the tower before any equipment could be added to it and require that the findings be reported back to the board.

The issue will be heard by the board's Economic Development, Transportation, and Technology Committee on May 12, beginning at 9:30 a.m. in room 410 of the Veterans Building, at 401 Van Ness Avenue.

In the meantime, frustrated neighbors say they will continue their battle to have Sutro Tower subjected to the same city codes as everyone else, especially when questions of seismic safety remain unanswered.

"As soon as they smelled neighborhood opposition, they broke the project into pieces," said Williams of the Sutro project's sponsors. "They know all the tricks. What we can't figure out," he added, "is why the Planning Department keeps falling for them."

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