Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 29, 2010

News Digest

Palo Alto gives emphatic "NO!" to rail station

California's high-speed rail system should not stop in Palo Alto as it speeds between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the City Council agreed Oct. 25.

Citing a wide range of reasons — including increased traffic, a stringent parking requirement, questionable ridership projections and flaws in the proposed station design — the council voted unanimously Monday to take a position against a local rail station.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority had chosen Palo Alto, along with Redwood City and Mountain View, as one of three possible cities in the Midpeninsula that could host a station for the voter-approved rail line.

Council members compared bringing a high-speed rail station to Palo Alto to building a regional airport in the middle of the city. The council took its vote days after its High-Speed Rail Committee unanimously rejected the station idea.

The rail authority indicated that the community with a rail station would need to build 3,000 parking spots for train riders without three miles of the station, including 1,000 spots next to the station. Staff estimated it would cost about $150 million to meet this requirement.

Report spreads blame for Cal Ave tree debacle

A confidential personnel report cites multiple errors by several city staff members for a failure in public outreach in the removal of 63 mature trees on California Avenue in September 2009.

The executive summary of a longer report prepared early in 2010 was e-mailed to the Weekly and other newspapers by a "John Doe."

The document listed Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie, Planning and Community Environment Director Curtis Williams and Senior Project Engineer Karen Bengard as having made decisions that set the tree debacle in motion — which created a huge public outcry. But other Public Works and Planning staff were also faulted in the report.

Ironically, the errors cited related to failures in public awareness and outreach, not whether the trees should have been removed wholesale. A plan to replace the trees had been in the works for several years, but phased in rather than all at the same time. It is unclear from the executive summary whether the extent of the tree removal was known by more than a few staff members.

City Manager James Keene told the Weekly that he had not seen the report until Tuesday, and that it was "not an authorized release of what appears to be a draft report." He said officials wanted to be sure it was "complete and signed and accurate."

Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin said it is the city's policy not to release personnel reports naming lower-level city employees.

View the executive summary of the report at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Court allows demolition of Juana Briones House

Jaim Nulman and Avelyn Welczer got one step closer to building their dream home on the site of the historic Juana Briones house in the Palo Alto foothills, after the state's Sixth Appellate District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that the City of Palo Alto had no choice but to issue their demolition permit.

In a reversal of an earlier decision, the court ruled the city has no choice but to approve a demolition permit for the U-shaped house, which has stood on Old Adobe Road since the 1840s. The house was originally occupied by Juana Briones de Miranda, a businesswoman who separated from her husband in 1844 and became one of California's first female landowners.

The Wednesday decision followed more than a decade of litigation between Nulman and the group Friends of the Juana Briones House, which seeks to protect the dilapidated structure from demolition. The city initially denied Nulman's demolition permit but later approved it after appeals. The Friends group then challenged the approval.

The latest court ruling states that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) did not apply in this case because "approval of that permit was a ministerial act," according to the case summary.

What that means, Nulman's attorney Greg Klingsporn said, is because the owners met the city's building-code requirements and paid the fees, the city had no choice but to issue a demolition permit. Issuing the permit was not a discretionary act on the city's part, he said.

The Nulmans are still a number of weeks away from taking any action on their property, Klingsporn said. First, the case goes back to the original trial court (Superior Court), which has to officially deny the Friends' petition.

The Friends could appeal to the state Supreme Court, he said.

Jeanne McDonnell, one of the leaders of the Friends group, said the group has not made a decision on whether to appeal the ruling.

— Gennady Sheyner and Carol Blitzer

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