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Apologies Don't Assuage Kensington Anger over Streetlights

PG&E and Contra Costa County public works officials offered public apologies for replacing Kensington's lantern-style streetlights with bright steel "cobra head" lights without consulting residents, but the audience wasn't molli

A community meeting in Kensington Thursday night included apologies from officials representing the two entities responsible for the controversial replacement of many of the township's old lantern-style streetlights with what many consider ugly, steel "cobra head" intruders better suited to a freeway.

A large portion of the three dozen residents in the audience at the Community Center did not appear satisfied with the apologies or the information provided by representatives of PG&E and the Contra Costa County Public Works Department.

Many expressed anger about the generic, bright "cobra head" lights on shiny steel poles that replaced the old lights on wood poles, and indignation that the community had not been consulted before the project began.

"These look like they belong on a freeway and not on a residential street," said Stacey Janoff. "I would just like to comment publicly that I am completely offended that I was never even informed that this was happening."

Several also complained that the increased height of the poles, combined with the intense brightness of the lights spreading not just onto the streets but sideways into homes, causes much distress.

The meeting ended with the unfinished replacement project being kept on hold and the expectation that PG&E and county public works officials would return with possible options at another public meeting, likely in December.

"It's our fault," said county Deputy Public Works Director Brian Balbas. "Public works did a very poor job in communicating with the community. ... I'm really disappointed in that because we actually do take great pride in that in our department, and we generally go out to get feedback from the residents that live in the communities that we serve...

"I'm here to tell you right now we could have done a better job on that, and I want to apologize for that."

PG&E began taking down the old lights on July 24 on Arlington Avenue – the township's main thoroughfare – as part of a systemwide effort to eliminate old wooden poles, deemed a safety hazard. The county public works department, which oversees streets in unincorporated Kensington, sanctioned the plan.

When complaints started pouring in, Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who had been unaware of the project, asked that it be halted pending further discussions. When the work stopped, 41 of the 56 lights slated for removal had been replaced.

Gioia acted as moderator at the community meeting Thursday night at the Kensington Community Center.

No one in the community seems to object to losing the wood poles, but a number of residents want to know why the replacement steel poles and fixtures can't be of the painted, decorative type, like those on Berkeley's stretch of Arlington Avenue next to Kensington.

After his apology, Balbas nevertheless recommended completing the project as planned, saying that the decorative lights offered by PG&E – of the kind found on Arlington Avenue in Berkeley – are too short and too dim for road safety on the Arlington in Kensington.

He said the lights in Kensington are farther apart than those in Berkeley and thus need to be taller and brighter to cover the roadway adequately. Also, he said, Kensington's stretch includes commercial and public uses, not just residential. Berkeley's stretch is purely residential. He said ordering special poles not offered by PG&E or moving the lights closer together in Kensington could prove prohibitively expensive.

Speaking for PG&E, government affairs representative Roxanne Cruz said, "I myself apologize for the fact that we didn't communicate with you via a letter about the project."

"We did leave door hangers at the homeowners that are closest to the lights," she continued, as several in the audience murmured no.

Some residents said they had seen a door-hanger, and some said they hadn't. One man said he received one about a week before the project began, by which time he said it was a "fait accompli" and too late to alter.

One sign of audience members not believing what they were being told came when PG&E project manager Joseph Cussary said the new 32-foot poles had replaced old poles of the same height. Several residents objected, saying the old poles were shorter by about six feet, and some waved photographs as proof.

One woman said that her previously unobstructed view of the Bay now has a cobra head light fixture in the middle of it.

Cussary said that some of the old poles could have been shorter because of later landscaping or ground conditions when the poles were installed, but he did not appear to have convinced many in the audience.

When Gioia later said he understood that the old poles and the new poles are about the same height, several in the audience broke in at once, expressing strong disagreement, which prompted Gioia to ask for one person to speak at a time.

"I know this is a really emotional issue," he acknowledged.

Resident Donna Cramer said she now sees eight of the new lights from her home on Amherst Avenue.

"I see eight of these from my window – eight," she said. "The old – it was not higher than the second story of the grocery store. ... It's a significant issue, and I'm totally opposed to finishing the project."

"This is not San Pablo Avenue," she continued. "This is not Appian road, this is not the Dam road, this is not the freeway. This is a village community, and this project is totally unacceptable." Several audience members applauded.

"In our house," said resident Joe Holmes, "the issue is almost entirely the light pollution ... just huge amounts of light pollution. ... Our world-class view is completely destroyed at night. It's like taking the Mona Lisa and spraying like a black spray-can all over it."

"The whole inside of the house is filled with this hideous spots of light all over the place," he said. "There's no darkness at night anymore. And it's because they (the lights) are about six feet higher and they have terrific inside-light pollution. And they are brighter."

Holmes said some form of shielding on the lights could make a significant difference. Cussary from PG&E said shields are available and could be considered for addition to the fixtures. There was some skepticism in the audience about whether the shields would be adequate to block unwanted light.

Some residents questioned whether there might be more options than those presented by PG&E.

Cruz said the old lantern-style poles were considered standard and so PG&E is replacing standard with standard, she said. For decorative poles, PG&E can offer two options under the "rate schedule" that applies to Kensington – a teardrop or acorn-style, she said.

The two decorative options that PG&E said it could offer come on poles less than half the height of the cobra-head poles and with fixtures that are dimmer, Balbas said, adding that they would not provide satisfactory lighting at the spacing of lights in Kensington and for a street that includes commercial and public uses.

Some in the audience asked what standards Balbas was using to assess how much light is necessary, and he said he did not have the standards with him at the meeting. Others said the commerical and public uses on the Arlington take place largely during the daytime and would not much affect the calculations for light needed at night.

Gioia asked Kensington Police Chief Greg Harman for the police department's perspective.

"No police chief is going to say he wants less light on the street," Harman said. "We want it lit up, but that's not what the community wants."

Gioia said he must balance the desires of the community with public safety.

He said, "Let's say that folks in this room, who are a subset of the larger Kensington community who have the complaints, say, 'We want shorter, less light.' And if after some objective information I get from Public Works that says, 'This is dangerously low, because it could cause an accident, increase the risk of whatever,' it is my job to say, 'You know what? The public safety standards––'. I'm not saying that's going to be the outcome, but I'm saying it's not just what the people in this room want. It's what is the right thing to do. ... It's not worth if for me – let's say someone gets killed or injured – I see too much of this kind of stuff happen around the county."

"I think we're trying to figure out an overlap of what works and respect people's concerns and figure out how to solve this," he said. 

Gioia said he lives on the Bay Trail in Richmond and that his home is exposed to safety lighting on the trail, which he accepts in exchange for a safer trail.

Further questions were raised over whether other options not offered by PG&E could be ordered, or whether additional poles could be added.

Gioia said such options cost money and asked who's going to pay. He said the county doesn't have extra funds to add poles, for example.

A man in the audience said, "If it meant more money be paid so that we would have new versions of the old lights, that should be brought before the people and we can decide if that is something we're willing to pay for, but nobody asked. That's why we're so darn annoyed with all of you."

"I think PG&E should replace them," he said. "They've got tons of money, and they screwed up. It's their fault, and they should replace them."

Resident Lynn Wolter termed the project an "insult," adding, "It's light pollution, ... it's not aesthetically appealing, it doesn't blend into the neighborhood. ... This is not appropriate for a residential neighborhood."

"And I think part of what is lending to the hostility among the residents is the absolute inflexibility that we're hearing from PG&E," she said.

Tony Lloyd, a member of the Kensington Police Protection and Community Services Board, said the community heard PG&E and the county Public Works Department "stand up and take accountability for the problem. ... Don't lose sight of that."

"They are responsible for the problem," he said, "and to their credit, they've owned up to it, and they've said, 'We could have done a better job.' I think partly we've got to help them to a better job, but this issue is not a problem that we as a community has to solve. This problem is an issue that ... the agencies have to solve on our behalf."

Lloyd continued, addressing the utility and public works representatives, "We've explained to you what the issues are. ... I suggest you now go back, sit down amongst yourselves and you figure out what is a reasonable solution. ... I think the people of Kensington are willing to be very, very lenient."

He added, "I'm a little offended, just a little bit, that what I've heard so much is, 'Well, you know, if you want to get your checkbook out and write a check, we can fix it.' We know that. Hey, that's not why we're having the meeting. We're having the meeting to ask you to help us fix it. And that's what I think I'd like to hear, and I think that's what the people meant."

Gioia responded, "I know people don't want to have to spend more money on this solution, so one of the issues is what are the available options and solutions with the existing budget."

Gioia told Patch after the meeting that the county public works department and PG&E would take the public input from the meeting and explore options for addressing the issue. He said they are expected to bring the results of their discussions back to another community meeting, probably next month.

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Eyleen Nadolny November 05, 2012 at 06:02 PM
This is more evidence of the overweening hubris of PG&E. It screwed up, it should pay.
Chris November 06, 2012 at 12:53 AM
As a former Kensington resident for about 18yrs, I remember those street lights very well. And I recall they didn't put much of their dim, orange light directly down on the street, but quite a bit into trees along the Arlington. I can appreciate the locals' ire over the charmless 'Cobra Heads' ruining beautiful evening bay views with their glare. But do I think a brighter, more direct lighting of the street would be welcome. If it's too late (read "too expensive") to go back to the old lantern style, how about some directional shades to concentrate the light cast to the street & sidewalks? It may not be a compromise that sits well with everyone, but at least it could mitigate the side glare that affects so many residents' views and the "quality of life" that Kensington residents are paying for.
Steve Simrin November 06, 2012 at 03:34 AM
An 8/5/12 article on this matter in the Patch said: "The public works department oversees streets in unincorporated Kensington and had understood, based on an earlier meeting between county staff and PG&E, that that the utility company would use decorative new poles to replace the old ones, according to an email from Warren Lai, county assistant public works director, to Gioia's office." If this is accurate, then as someone who was at the community meeting last week, I believe the county planners are being misleading about their role in this. At the meeting the planners said the poles used were the only ones that met the requirements determined by the county. This is clearly inconsistent with what county planner Lai is quoted as saying in the earlier Patch article. Even though the county planners admitted mistakes at the recent community meeting, I believe they have yet to acknowledge the actual level of their culpability. They have further serious explaining to do. Someone should be held responsible. Steve Simrin
Toni Mayer November 06, 2012 at 04:08 AM
This is a textbook example of arrogance and ineptitude on the part of PG&E and County Public Works. To think apologizing for poor communication, yet wanting to continue w/ their plans in the face of the objections of those who must live w/ the effects, is just nonsense. There is no need for more light than the old lights cast. I have driven the Arlington at night for decades and never have felt it was dangerously dark. I don't live in Kensington, but I certainly understand and sympathize w/ the anger of those who do and are affected by this.

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