Let's Talk Law
I have served as Atherton's City Manager now for just about 2 years. During that time, there have been several issues that have made their way to my desk that involve enforcement and compliance with Town ordinances and laws. Atherton is a pretty well regulated (and self-regulated) community and for the most part, most of the residents maintain their property well within the standards and laws that apply. But, there are a few issues that percolate to the top - and Atherton is not unique in the types of issues that affect quality of life.
Now, I'm not talking about public safety laws - speeding, illegal parking, loud parties, or running through that neighborhood stop sign. We all know that those violations never occur, right? Well....wrong. Our Police Department is very busy addressing those issues as well as other property and quality of life crime in Town. For details on what's happening, visit the Citizen RIMS
area of the Town's website for regular updates. You can even sign up for email alerts. Nice feature.
This post is not about those issues, rather, it's about compliance with Town ordinances and laws mostly related to land use and identification of areas of improvement. The municipal codebook is actually about 2 inches thick (available online here
). Where to begin...
Wireless Telecommunication Facilities
How about communication? Communication is important. Clear communication. We're working on an ordinance to address clear communication. More specifically, an ordinance to address wireless communications - yes, I'm referring to cellular towers. Right now, we do not really have an ordinance that addresses the issues the way we would like.
The downside is we (the Town) are pretty much restricted as to what we can and cannot regulate with respect to cellular tower installations. They have a right to be there. Period. That's what the Federal Government has told us. The good part though, is we have a right to regulate the time, place, and manner of their installation. While that might sound a bit vague, we are working on an ordinance to make it very, very, clear. Crystal clear, in fact. Through the ordinance, we hope to be able to regulate issues surrounding screening, stealth installations (trees, flag poles, etc.), underground vault requirements, notice and public input, and more.
Since this is about communication, let me be clear. The ordinance will not prevent the installation of cellular towers. Nor will the ordinance prevent upgrades to existing sites. Let's face it, most of us want our wireless communications to work well - we just do not want to see the visual blight of a cell tower nor do we want to live next to one. We will be bringing the ordinance to the City Council for public review at a Study Session in the fall (likely October or November). This is the first chance for public input surrounding the ordinance. There will be several others before the ordinance is ultimately considered for adoption. Sign up using NotifyMe!
to get an email alert of Council meeting agendas and other electronic notifications. We'd love to hear from you on the topic.
Encroachments Within the Public Right-of-Way
From communication to encroachment. If you've been following recent meetings of the City Council you've heard that we are working on a new encroachment ordinance to address improvements placed within the public right-of-way. The public right-of-way is that stretch of land between your front property line (typically a fence or gate along your frontage) to the edge of the public roadway pavement. The Town, via local laws and standards, controls how that area can be improved
. For example, within the first 3 feet from the edge of the roadway pavement, landscaping is limited to 5 inches in height. Within the next 3 feet, landscaping is limited to 3 feet in height. Rocks, logs, curbs, or other similar obstructions are not allowed within 6 feet of the edge of pavement. Etc. Etc. Etc.
If you are doing any work within that right-of-way, underground or above ground, you are required to obtain an encroachment permit from the Town before the work begins. This ensures that the Town is aware of the work, can advise of any concerns and impose reasonable conditions as required (safety, traffic control, etc.). The larger issue here though is one of liability and private improvements. Technically, you as the homeowner are liable for harm caused by your private improvements placed within the public right-of-way. Most of you may not be fully aware of this so we are developing a process to formalize that understanding. I was driving home the other day down Atherton Avenue and a truck was parked on the opposite side of the roadway (blocking the street to unload - don't get me started on that issue). I digress.
Back to my story, I was driving home along Atherton Avenue and a vehicle headed the opposite direction pulled out around the truck into the lane of opposing traffic. I had to pull off the roadway and onto the shoulder to allow the vehicle to pass safely. In doing so, I nearly hit a couple of rocks placed within the right-of-way by the homeowner. Had my vehicle hit one of those rocks, that homeowner may have been liable for the damage to my vehicle. The right-of-way is intended to be a "safe harbor" off the roadway. Some private improvements impinge on that safe harbor by not allowing the safe passage of pedestrians, bicycles, and/or vehicles. The Town has an interest in protecting the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.
We want the process to be painless. The cost of any permits will solely be the cost of processing the paperwork. It is anticipated that the permit will be in the form of an agreement and drawing. The property owner will provide a drawing of what will be in the right-of-way and will execute an agreement acknowledging liability for those private improvements. Just as is the case now, the Town has the ability to deny/approve/modify what can be placed in the right-of-way. Stay tuned for this one. I hear lots of complaints about rocks and logs in the rights-of-way. We hope to be able to allow improvements that work well, integrate with future planned improvements, encourage safety, and allow for individual property owner improvements.
Signs Signs Everywhere Are Signs
Alright, we talked communication and we've talked encroachment. I've saved the best for last. Signage. From construction sites to real estate signs to political signs to estate sale signs to signs for that lost pet. They all present challenges. Our current ordinances are way out of date. There are some in the community that are self-policing. Others, not so much. We will be updating our sign ordinance in an attempt to provide clear guidance for the size, type, and placement of signage - on public and private property. This one will take some time and some input from the stakeholders as well as the community. What we do not want is a free-for-all with respect to signs. We would like to see some standardized sizes, proper placement so as not to impede on the safe passage of pedestrians and vehicles, as well as timing for removal and placement that makes sense.
Those are the big ones. We are also working on:
- construction site regulations (noise, fencing, surveillance, parking, etc.);
- development impact fees (wear and tear fees for those construction projects that have impacts on the roadway due to their project);
- updates to the refuse ordinance to address construction and demolition requirements;
- updates to the special event permit ordinance; and
- updates to address improvements through the bicycle and pedestrian master plan.
These are the surface changes. There are also numerous changes to address continuity and consistency across the Town's municipal codes. Some of you may have noticed in the list above changes to the special event permit ordinance. I'm sure my italicizing it and bolding it helped.
This is to tighten up what already exists. If you are hosting an event at your home or at a venue in Town (Park, Circus Club, School) and that event requires or results in the Town's use of resources in response or in advance of your event (parking control measures, traffic control via the police department, noise response due to complaints, etc.) you are required to pay the cost of those services. You are required to obtain a special event permit in advance
of the event. This one is already on the books - but it needs to be cleaned up and tightened up to address one-night events and add clarity to address private events and school events.
If you have any thoughts or questions on the above, please feel free to give me a call at (650) 752-0504 or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
. I'd love your feedback - it's what makes things work.
Town of Atherton