Catching up after summer

My apologies for taking such a long break since my last post in April. My main task last summer was getting my 23-year old son back on his feet after he was hit by a car while commuting to work on his motorcycle.

He broke his left femur in the crash in May and is now walking with a slight limp and a long titanium rod running the length of his femur. He gets stronger every week and he is already (you guessed it) back on his motorcycle. Grrrrr. I wanted him to inherit my love of two-wheeled vehicles, but this is not what I had in mind.

The council had the month of August off, so nothing dramatic occurred on August—but then, hardly anything dramatic has ever occurred in August, except the start of WWI. It’s a slow news month. In July the appeal of the Occupy the Farm CEQA lawsuit was emphatically denied by the appeals court, and construction will start this fall on assisted living center and retail complex. That’s great news.

The other good news is that the remodeling of the Safeway on Solano has begun. The store will remain open during the project, much of which will be completed at night. The exterior footprint of the building will stay the same, with the addition of some fresh paint and parking lot repairs. We won’t be getting a fancy new Safeway like so many cities around us, due in part (only in part) to neighborhood criticisms during the planning. This is an example of how in Albany, when to comes to development, the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

There was incremental progress on several issues over the summer, but most of them have come before the council this fall in our first two meetings, or will be on the agenda soon, so I’ll discuss them in that context.

My last post in April concerned SB-277, the bill in Sacramento sponsored by state senator Richard Pan. It passed easily. This bill eliminates the personal and religious exemptions to vaccines for children attending schools in California. Another measure, SB-792, also passed. This legislation requires vaccinations for child care workers and volunteers. A good recent article on the topic is here.

In another recent piece of good news, the anti-vaccine referendum that was started after the passage of SB-277 has failed to gather enough signatures.

Our first meeting after the August break was on Sept. 8. It was interesting. It started well. The police chief reported he had produced a biennial report, available here.

The main item for me the night of Sept. 8 was the issue of whether or not to align the medical benefits of council members with those of the city employees. Many city councils give their members the right to participate in the medical plan for the staff, but a former Albany City Council had gone beyond that. Good Damin Esper coverage in the CC Times here.

The agenda is here (it includes video link, so it may load slowly)

A former city council had decided that their voter-approved reimbursement of $300/month was insufficient, and also decided, without consulting voters, to increase medical benefits above the level of the city employees, and to give themselves an in lieu payment of about $700/month if they chose not to be on the city’s plan (the in lieu benefit was not paid in cash, but was deposited into a 403-b retirement plan). In effect, those council members who took the in lieu benefit more than tripled their salary without voter approval.

Like many Albany residents, I thought that stunt was unethical, and I wrote about it previously on my blog here.

An excellent report by our then interim financial manager Paul Rankin revealed just how out of line Albany’s council benefits were with respect to a comparison group of nearby cities of similar size.

Of the 26 cities, 20 (77%) include provisions for city council members to receive health benefits. Of the 20 cities offering health, five (25%) cover all costs, fourteen (70%) covered a portion, and one (5%) provided zero dollars. Of the 20 cities that offered health benefits, only the City of Albany offered higher medical benefits to council members than to other employees.

Ten cities that provided health insurance to council members offered an in lieu benefit upon proof of coverage. The average in lieu benefit payment was $500 for the agencies that offered one. Albany was the only city that offered an in lieu benefit of more than $700.

Based on that report, in February 2014 the previous council decided to eliminate the in lieu benefit, a change that I advocated for and voted in favor of. For our Sept. 8 meeting less than a month ago, the city attorney provided a report that showed that the Albany City Council was on questionable legal ground by having a benefit level above that of its employees, and faced a risk of litigation.

Based on the city attorney’s opinion, the council voted to eliminate its overly generous benefits and to align its benefits to those of the city employees. This was a long-awaited victory, and I was glad it was finally over.

But during the process, council member Nick Pilch seemed to have his doubts, and was the only council member to vote against reducing the level of benefits. The discussion that night was videotaped. The item is introduced at 1:14:40, and councilmember Pilch’s comments begin at 1:23:20.

Pilch indicated that if the council doesn’t get medical benefits higher than those of the staff, he wanted to revisit the in lieu benefits issue, which was a legal (although in my opinion, underhanded) way of having the council pay itself more money.

To use an old-fashioned word, I was flabbergasted. I was disappointed again when Mayor Peter Maass stated that he felt not enough people were interested in running for the council and that perhaps council members should get paid more.

I found this logic a little strange, since when Maass and I ran for council in 2012, there were seven candidates for three open positions. It is true, however, that in 2014, only three people ran for three open seats on the council, and as a cost-savings measure, the council cancelled the election.

Secondly, the Maass/Pilch argument was out of touch with the reality of public service in Albany. I can appreciate why city staff members get in lieu benefits—they work very long hours and are often in attendance at meetings late into the evening. On the other hand, the city council is a part-time job at most. Given the hours we work, I don’t think we deserve in lieu benefits.

Albany school board members get paid only about $200 a month. I’m pretty sure that is what I got when I served on the school board in 2002-06. School board members can participate in the district’s medical plan, but there has never been an attempt by school board members to get either higher benefits than teachers or in lieu benefits.

Our Planning and Zoning Commissioners works as hard as council members, and have done a tremendous job on the city’s new general plan. What do they get for their efforts? Nothing. No cash payments, no medical benefits, nothing.

In my case, as someone who typically works more than 40 hours/wk, the constraint is not money, it’s time. It’s hard to find the time to hold a public office, especially if you still have kids at home (which I no longer do, except after motorcycle accidents). A salary of $300/month ($200 after taxes) doesn’t compensate for the lost time. Increasing council pay wouldn’t change that reality.

My feeling is that if council members deserve more money (and I don’t think they do) then they should find a way to take the issue to the voters, and structure the extra income so that current members of the council are not eligible for the raises.


An open letter to State Senator Loni Hancock on SB-277

Senator Hancock:

I have been closely following the debate over SB-277, the bill that would remove California’s personal exemption for the requirement to vaccinate children before they can attend school. This bill was sponsored by Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician from Sacramento, and Senator Ben Allen, a former school board president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. (Info available here.)

My interest in public health is longstanding. In the 1980s I worked as an analyst for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. I have been a university science editor and writer for many years. I served on my local school board in Albany, CA, from 2002-06. Currently I am serving on the Albany city council.

During the Senate Education hearing on SB-277, you were quoted in the San Jose Mercury News. I read the quote several times because I couldn’t believe that you would make such a statement. I even wrote to your office to request a confirmation, but I never heard from your staff.

However, I did get confirmation from an article in the Sacramento Bee, which quoted you making the same statement (here). According to the Bee:

Support for the bill from a wide range of educational groups was not enough to break the impasse. While the formidable California Teachers Association is holding off taking a position, other school organizations have lined up behind the premise that children must be able to attend school without fear of disease.

That argument failed to convince a majority of lawmakers on the Education Committee, including Democrats.“I’m looking for the compelling state interest here in doing something as draconian,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, because “as I read this bill, there’s nothing you can do if you choose not to vaccinate your child except personally home-school them.”

Let me be clear: Your statement on SB-277 shows a degree of ignorance and cowardice that I find difficult to comprehend. You caved to the irrational thinking of the anti-vaccers. If you and your senate colleagues continue on this path, the result may be more dead children.

You do not see a “compelling state interest?” Please let me show you a historical example from your own district. The Sunset View cemetery is at the top of Fairmont Street in El Cerrito. There is a section of the cemetery, next to the Viewpoint Garden, devoted to the graves of children. I’ve could have provided many more photos, but below are eight images of “facts on the ground.”

compositeNote that most of these grave markers predate WWII and the widespread use of vaccines. There was a dramatic increase in life expectancy in the United States during the 20th century, but it was due not so much to people living longer, but from fewer people dying young. This dramatic improvement was also not due to doctors and the medical profession, but to public health–especially the triad of better nutrition, sanitation and vaccination. Some good historical footage is available here in this NY Times video.

As for your statement about “draconian” laws: personally, I find the laws of nature draconian. Here is a Mayo Clinic video showing an infant in a hospital intensive-care unit. The child has pertussis, or whooping cough. This disease killed 10 infants in California during the recent pertussis epidemic. The rise in cases is due to both falling vaccination rates at the waning of immunity, which requires a booster shot. The video is 2 minutes 23 seconds long. Please watch the whole thing. Here is another example.

You also made the following statement: “as I read this bill, there’s nothing you can do if you choose not to vaccinate your child except personally home-school them.” It’s not that simple. Let me explain:

All 50 states and Washington, DC, allow for medical exemptions. Only 20 states, including California, allow for personal exemptions. The majority of states, 30, and Washington, DC, do not allow personal exemptions. All states except Mississippi and West Virginia allow religious exemptions. (Source: here)

There are complications. Missouri’s personal exemption only applies to children before kindergarten age. California doesn’t have a well-developed religious exemption because the state’s personal exemption is so broad. However, Senator Pan, SB-277’s co-sponsor, told the L.A. Times in early February that he was willing to consider a religious exemption. Although the problem is often religious in nature, as this example from Texas shows.

What SB-277 strives to do is tighten up California’s lax vaccine exemption rules and make them more consistent with other states. There is nothing draconian about this. Furthermore, the changes brought by SB-277 are completely consistent with settled law. See this thoughtful Supreme Court decision, Prince v. Massachusetts, 1944. Justice Rutledge, writing for the majority, states:

The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.

Full quote is here:

But the family itself is not beyond regulation in the public interest, as against a claim of religious liberty. (Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145; Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333.) And neither rights of religion nor rights of parenthood are beyond limitation. Acting to guard the general interest in youth’s wellbeing, the state, as parens patriae, may restrict the parent’s control by requiring school attendance, [n9] regulating or prohibiting the child’s labor [n10] and in many other ways. [n11] Its authority is not nullified merely because the parent grounds his claim to control the child’s course of conduct on religion or conscience. Thus, he cannot claim freedom from compulsory vaccination for the child more than for himself on religious grounds. [n12] The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death. (People v. Pierson, 176 N.Y. 201, 68 N.E. 243. [n13] ) The catalogue need not be lengthened. It is sufficient to show what indeed appellant hardly disputes, that the state has a wide range of power for limiting parental freedom and authority in things affecting the child’s welfare, and that this includes, to some extent, matters of conscience and religious conviction.

The recent measles epidemic in California has been declared over. Fortunately, no children died, unlike the horrific measles epidemic of 1991 in Philadelphia, which killed nine children, six them from fundamentalist churches which did not believe in vaccination.

There was a young doctor who was working in Philadelphia at the time, and never forgot the experience. His name is Richard Pan. He is the co-sponsor of SB-277.

Here are three editorials in favor of SB-277 from the San Jose Mercury News, the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Your concerns about SB-277 don’t seem to be consistent with those of your district. By 2017, UC Berkeley, along with the other UC campuses, will require vaccinations for enrollment.

Based on my experience as a school board member, I can assure you that a student’s right to a public education does not trump the rights of other students to be safe. I attended many expulsion hearings when on the school board, mostly to rule on the fate of students who were fighting or bringing knives or other weapons to school.

Communicable diseases can be weapons, too, just like knives. If schools can exclude students carrying knives, they should be able to exclude unvaccinated students carrying potentially deadly diseases.

As the history of contact between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Europe has shown, European diseases were far more deadly than European guns and swords.

One of the most brutal diseases, one that killed millions of indigenous Americans, was smallpox. That disease has been eradicated thanks to vaccines. We are close to eliminating another ancient scourge, polio. But the vaccination campaign is being thwarted in two regions of the world, Northern Nigeria and in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, by the violent Islamic groups Boko Haram and the Taliban. These groups are anti-vaccine and have killed many public health workers, mostly women. I guess the anti-vaccine movement makes for strange bedfellows.

In 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, Berkeley put a new twist in its official calendar, according to TIME magazine. Berkeley inaugurated “Indigenous Peoples Day,” to take the place of Columbus Day.

Said the Berkeley mayor at the time, “Columbus Day celebrations have been ‘Eurocentric and ignored the brutal realities of the colonization of indigenous peoples.'” The brutal reality included smallpox and many other diseases that we have either eliminated or controlled with vaccines. The name of Berkeley’s mayor in 1992? Loni Hancock.

Senator Pan’s SB-277 is a good bill. Pan certainly doesn’t deserve the death threats he has been getting. At an ugly, contentious education committee meeting, you caved to pressure from the anti-vaccers and attempted to throw him under the bus. To his credit, Pan picked himself up, dusted himself off, and asked to work with you to perfect the bill. I hope you accept his offer.

You would do well to follow the example of Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who, with decency and common sense, told the Sacramento Bee that parents who are unwilling to vaccinate their kids should be prepared to forfeit public school and home-school their children.

“Quite frankly, if you want to live … as a productive member of society, there are obligations and requirements,” Gonzalez said. “I am comfortable with the home-school option.”


Michael Barnes
Albany City Council
Former member, Albany school board


Crude oil and coal by rail through Albany?

At the March 2 meeting, The council voted on Resolution no. 2015-10. I was the only council member to vote against. The resolution was a long and rambling list of concerns about rail transport of coal and crude oil. As a young man, I spent two summers working on the Alaska Railroad. It was obvious to me that the local environmental groups who wrote the resolution didn’t really understand much about railroads. I’m no expert, either, but at least I’m aware of that.

Just to establish my street cred, or maybe my rail cred, here are a few photos of my workplace and colleagues just inside the southern boundary of Denali Park in the summer of 1976.


IMG_4814What I found bothersome about the vote was that there was no effort on the part of the council to verify the statements in the resolution. Just because you stick a “whereas” in front of a statement and vote yes, it doesn’t make the statement true. The council had some obligation to verify the truthfulness and reasonableness of statements that it approved. Yet it failed to do that.

All of this reminded me far too much of the old Berkeley city council that was justifiably ridiculed for having its own foreign policy, and for voting on national and international issues for which it had no jurisdiction and no expertise. Likewise, Albany neither has any jurisdiction over railroads, nor does the city have any expertise, and the resolution was not accompanied by any staff report.

This sort of sloppy activism has no place in a city council meeting. It reminded me of lunacy and years of delay in getting cell phone service in our town. (Note: There is a silver lining to this story. City staff did find an authoritative source of information on the issue of oil shipments and rail safety, but you’ll have to wait until the end of this post to find out what it is).

Here is the resolution:


I disagree with this resolution. It’s too vague and overreaching. If we want to put “fossil fuel materials” like gasoline in our cars, they’ve got to get to our local gas stations somehow. As a general rule, I’d rather see fossil fuel materials transported by rail than by road. The safety record for Bay Area railroads is quite good. Our road safety record–not so good.

A few of the statements in the resolution refer to the shipment of coal. I think coal is irrelevant, since it is unlikely that we will see large shipments of coal coming to the Port of Oakland, which is busy, land-constrained and designed for containerized cargo. Here are three statements in from the resolution and my thoughts about them:

WHEREAS, a Federal Surface Transportation Board proceeding regarding the Transportation of coal by rail found that coal dust can destabilize rail tracks and can contribute to train derailments

 WHEREAS, coal and petcoke are commonly transported via open-top rail cars and a large volume of those materials escape during transit, contaminating urban areas, farmland, and waterways across California with coal dust, petcoke and chunks of coal;

 WHEREAS, coal and petroleum coke contain toxic heavy metals – including mercury, arsenic, and lead – and exposure to these toxic heavy metals in high concentrations is linked to cancer and birth defects in humans and can be harmful to fish and wildlife

Coal is a very dirty source of energy, and produces about double the amount of carbon dioxide per unit of energy than natural gas. However, the problem with coal is burning it, not shipping it. Toxic metals can be injected into the atmosphere in particulate form, where they settle onto the ocean surface and are concentrated in the ocean food chain, contaminating top predators like tuna with high levels of mercury.

Concerns about coal transport are driven by shipments from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to China. China has coal reserves of its own, but it is currently cheaper to ship coal from ports on the western edge of North America than it is to develop coal mining and rail infrastructure to ship it from western China to industrial areas much further east. China also buys large quantities of coal from Australia.

Coal dust can be a problem, but the destabilization of the roadbed ballast occurs in loading at mines and unloading at ports, where coal dust is heaviest. Coal dust destabilization on open rail is much less of a concern, especially when coal shipments have been properly treated.

There are ways to mitigate coal dust in transport. The railroad companies don’t like coal dust any more than anyone else, since much of it falls on their tracks and other property. Burlington Northern Santa Fe has been working with the federal regulatory agencies to reduce coal dust. New regulations require shippers to mitigate dust by 85 percent.

Here is a law review article that, unlike the city council’s resolution, is well-referenced.

The reality is that plans do not call for major coal shipments to California ports, but to ports in the Pacific Northwest. Some information is here from an anti-coal shipping advocacy organization in Pacific Northwest.

The Port of Oakland, a major container port, seems uninterested in coal.

The link here is from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad which discusses the problems with coal dust and their efforts to mitigate it.

In summary, I think fears of long coals trains rolling through Albany, spewing coal dust, are unfounded.


Now, as for the statements in the resolution about crude oil shipments, let’s get some facts in play:

One barrel of oil contains 42 gallons.

A typical fully loaded tanker car contains 700 barrels, but estimates vary between 600 and 800 barrels depending on the type of tanker.

A typical tanker car is a little more than 50 feet long.

A 100-car train is about one mile long.

A train consisting of cars of only one type is called a unit train. A train with mixed cars and mixed cargo is called a manifest train.

A one-mile train traveling at 15 mph requires 4 minutes to pass a given point, and one traveling at 20 mph requires three minutes, although automatic crossing gates can add a few minutes to these times.

Now back to the statements in the resolution. Here’s a good place to start:

WHEREAS, new technologies have resulted in the development of unprecedented amounts of both domestic and foreign oil, natural gas, and other petroleum products and derivatives, which will significantly increase the volume of petroleum products moving by rail

The price of crude has fallen from around $100/barrel to less than $50/barrel during the last several months. This mostly due to geopolitics and economics, see this and this.

Some of the oil coming in by rail to California is from the Bakken shale of North Dakota. At these prices, it is not clear how much of oil production from Bakken will continue to be profitable.

It’s unlikely we’ll continue to see skyrocketing levels of output, a least until prices begin to rise. Saudi Arabia can profitably pump oil at prices below $10/barrel, and the Saudis seem to be testing just how low prices have to fall before U.S. producers are shut out.


WHEREAS, hauling crude oil, coal and petcoke into California involves traversing some of the most challenging mountain passes in the nation, greatly increasing the probability of serious accidents.

Well, not in California anyway. For rail, there is only one “challenging mountain pass” in California, at Donner Summit alongside Highway 80 near Truckee. Most California railways run north/south, and crude oil shipments do not have to pass over Donner Summit.

As for the serious accidents reported in Canada and the U.S., none of them have occurred in “challenging mountain passes.”


WHEREAS, the last few years have seen a dramatic rise in transport of crude by rail nationwide – the volume of crude by rail shipments in Northern California increased by 50 percent in 2013 alone – accompanied by a similar rise in accidents, nearly 100 in 2013

Good information on transportation of crude oil and ethanol is available from the state of California:

In 2014, six million barrels of crude oil flowed into California by rail. That an impressive number, but if you calculate it in terms of tanker cars per week (divide by 700 barrels per car and then by 52 weeks per year), the result is 165 tanker cars per week. Think of that as two 83-car trains per week, for the whole state of California.

This traffic is dwarfed by the amount of ethanol shipped to California by rail. The latest figures are for 2010, when the economy was in recession. Shipments of ethanol have very likely grown significantly since then. In 2010, California refineries used 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol, 88 percent of it shipped by rail. By volume, that is more than five times the amount of crude shipped by rail in 2014. Ethanol is used to replace MTBE, a fuel additive that was banned. Ethanol is now blended at about ten percent by volume into California gasoline, to help meet the federal renewable fuel standards (RFS).

Shipments of crude oil to California are refined into specially formulated, clean-burning gasoline to meet our state’s stringent air quality standards. Other heavier products are made as well (diesel, lubes, etc). The crude oil coming into the state is either shipped directly to refineries, or in shipped to depots where it is transferred to pipelines.

While there are refineries to the north of Albany in Richmond, Benicia and other points north and east, unit trains consisting only of up to 100 tanker cars do not need to travel through Albany to reach refineries. Trains do travel through Contra Costa County and through the Sacramento area. See this and this.

In short, rail shipments of crude oil into California are not overwhelming, typically do not pass through Albany, and they are dwarfed by rail shipments of ethanol. In addition, rail shipments are not likely to continue to rise significantly, as oil prices have fallen to below $50/barrel, and U.S. producers have higher production costs than Saudi Arabia.


Regardless of what freight is being shipped along U.S. railways, maintaining track safety and avoiding derailments is absolutely critical. As a rule, American transportation infrastructure is in a dismal statement state of repair, due mostly to the irresponsibility of our federal government and its failure to allocate enough resources to maintain public roads and bridges. For a good introduction to the topic, this report by Comedy Central’s John Oliver is simultaneously frightening and humorous. (Correction, April 15, 2015: John Oliver’s new show is on HBO.)

Here are two recent Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times that speak to the same issue (here and here).

Here is a link to a website devoted to the notorious DOT-111 tankers cars that are prone to rupturing in accidents.

On this website, at a link entitled “Staggering Increase in Oil Spills via Rail,” there is a useful interactive map of rail spills. California seems to be remarkably safe. The worse spill in our state in recent history, according to this website, was 20 gallons.

Nationally, railroads have spent $5 billion in recent years upgrading the rail system. In Alameda County, the railroad safety record is very good. Here is an informal summary, and here is a detailed searchable federal database.

I encourage readers to search the online database themselves. I think the conclusion is obvious that in Alameda County, the leading cause of railroad deaths is trains hitting people who are trespassing on railroad property.

Several derailments of ethanol trains have occurred, causing at least one explosion and a death. The infamous Lac-Megantic rail disaster in Quebec was caused by runaway train carrying Bakken crude, which in turn was caused by a combination of poor engine maintenance and human error.


I do have some sympathy for the sentiments expressed below:

WHEREAS, trains delivering crude oil, coal and petcoke traveling through the Bay Area will follow routes adjacent to the San Francisco Bay Estuary and local creeks, and routes adjacent to the Sacramento River and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, posing a serious threat to these ecosystems, and to California’s agricultural irrigation and drinking water supplies

As I mentioned in the March 2 city council meeting, the most environmentally damaging rail accident in California history occurred in 1991, when a railroad tanker car carrying a potent agricultural fumigant derailed and spilled its contents into the Sacramento River, decimating aquatic life in the river for years. Since then the river has fully recovered.

The fundamental issue is rail safety, and not rail shipments of petroleum products. There are many sorts of chemicals and commodities shipped by rail, derailments are always dangerous, and all rail shipments should be safe.

Here’s a statement in the resolution that I find problematic:

 WHEREAS, the City of Albany is deeply concerned about the threat to life, safety and the environment of potential spills and fires from the transport of petroleum by rail  

Think about this way: Crude oil is shipped by rail to California refineries, where it is refined into highly flammable and explosive gasoline. This highly flammable and explosive material is loaded onto tanker trucks and shipped by freeways and other roads, some of them in our neighborhoods, to small repositories called gas stations where this flammable petroleum material is stored in large underground tanks. There has been at least one local terrible freeway accident involving a gasoline tanker truck.

Personal transportation vehicles are driven to these gas stations and this extremely flammable and explosive liquid is pumped into small tanks very near the passenger compartments that often hold children. These vehicles are driven in dangerous conditions on road and freeways, resulting in collisions and other accidents.

The resulting death toll is tremendous—more than 30,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone, even after dramatic improvements in automobile safety equipment, including safety belts and air bags.

By comparison to these transportation risks, the risks from railway accidents are relatively low.


As I mentioned at the start of this note, there is a silver lining. By the time of the March 16 meeting, the staff had identified a reputable source of information, The League of California Cities. The league has thoughtfully researched this issue, and has published an article in their Western Cities magazine.

The league had also created a model letter to be submitted by California cities to federal agencies and legislators. The city staff did create a letter based on the league model, and the letter was included on the consent calendar of the March 16 meeting. It will be sent to our federal legislators and federal transportation officials.

I do have a few concerns about the letter and the magazine article. Both fail to take into account the recent drop in oil prices, and how they might affect rail shipments of crude into California. Cheaper middle-eastern oil typically enters our state on ships, not by rail. And the otherwise excellent article in the League’s Western Cities magazine fails to mention ethanol shipments at all.

For more on shipping flammable liquids, another reputable source of information is Chemical & Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society. Two recent articles discuss rail shipments of both crude oil and ethanol, both are worth reading (here and here).

The League of California Cities article quotes uncritically a statement from the California Energy Commission:

“Oil imports to California by rail shot up 506 percent to 6.3 million barrels in 2013 (one barrel equals 42 gallons). That number will climb to 150 million barrels by 2016, according to the California Energy Commission.”

506 percent over in what time period? One year? Five years? (Since I was one year old, my age has risen by almost 6,000 percent. Shocking!) The article fails to note that in 2014, the amount of crude by rail actually declined slightly. And the article also fails to point out that “150 million barrels by 2016” would be an increase by a factor of 25 in just a year or two. Statements like that should be taken with a degree of skepticism. It’s difficult to image the necessary infrastructure being built out and made operational that quickly.


To summarize, I dislike the type of shoddy, fear-mongering analysis that was put forward by local environmental groups that formed the basis of the council’s resolution on March 2. The danger is that this sort of “crying wolf” will lower the credibility of more thoughtful environmental advocates, especially those fighting climate change.

I think if we want to put gasoline in our cars, I’d rather see the crude oil come from domestic sources, since it creates jobs in the Unites States and reduces the amount of our dollars that the Saudis funnel to madrasas in the Middle East, where our dollars are used to teach radical fundamentalist ideas. That has been expensive for us, in terms of dollars and lost lives.

I’d rather see natural gas burned for energy than coal, even if the natural gas is the result of fracking. If the Bakken shale proves to be an economically viable source of crude and natural gas, I’d rather see those energy sources carried by pipelines rather than by rail. Pipelines are typically even safer and more energy-efficient than railroads.

In North Dakota, the Bakken shale was developed so quickly that there was no infrastructure put in place to capture natural gas, which instead was flared. This is an inexcusable waste, and the drop in oil prices may create an opportunity to build out badly needed natural gas infrastructure.

I urge Albany residents to keep your eyes open and observe our local freight trains. They are hard to hide, since the tracks run parallel to the freeway. How fast are the freight trains moving? Are they moving as fast as the cars on the freeway? You could have someone in your automobile count the number of railroad cars. Are all the cars of the same type (a unit train), or is the freight train made up of many different types of cars (a manifest train)?  I seriously doubt we’ll ever see a 100-car unit train hauling crude or ethanol through Albany, but it never hurts to stay vigilant.


Reviewing my first two years on the council

The city has been undergoing a strategic planning process over the past few months. More information is available here. However, instead of discussing where we are going, I’d like to review my first two years on the council. Let’s take a look the goals in my campaign literature to see how far we’ve come.

You can view a copy of my election flyer here.

Here is the list of my campaign goals, rearranged from those most successfully completed, to those that still need the most work:

Reestablishing a mutually productive and effective relationship between the city staff and the city council.

The new council has made good progress in this regard. We have an excellent city staff, better than we have a right to expect in such a small city, and I think council members are aware of how fortunate we are.

The most contentious issue has been the overly generous health care benefits that the previous council voted for itself, benefits that included in lieu payments (council members could be paid cash for not taking city-offered medical benefits) and benefits that were more generous than those given to city employees. See my earlier blog post on this here for more details.

The current council did get rid of in lieu payments, but we still need to tackle issue of excessively high medical benefits for council members. I’ve recommended that this item be placed on a council agenda soon.

 Filling the vacant police dispatcher position in the Albany police department.

 Done. In addition, with our recent successfully completed contract negotiations, Albany police officers now have salaries and benefits that are on par with other local police departments. Our police force lagged behind during the economically difficult years after the 2008 economic collapse.

 Updating emergency preparedness for climate change-related storms and flooding in addition to earthquakes and other disasters.

Ray Chan, our public works manager, along with his staff, has done a good job preparing the city for the recent intense rain storms my making sure storm drains were cleared. Climate change is bringing more intense storms (when they happen), so getting prepared for flooding will be a continuing problem.

Fire chief Lance Calkins is updating the city’s emergency preparedness plans. The invention and use of smoke alarms has reduced fire risks, so this allows for the fire department to spend more time planning on how to minimize risks, instead of responding after the fact.

Finally, we continuously train more citizens to be part of our Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Please check out how to get involved with CERT. For information, see this.

 Improving cell phone coverage by revising Albany’s out-of-date cell tower ordinance.

We now have two new AT&T cell sites operating, so coverage for AT&T customers is much improved. Revisions to the city’s out-of-date cell ordinance are making their way through the Planning and Zoning Commission, and new federal rules will make it easier to install cell sites and improve coverage and capacity in the future.

Providing resources to help resolve the problem of homelessness on the Albany Bulb and elsewhere in the city.

Where to start? The homeless encampment has been removed from the blub. About half of the former residents have been placed in housing through our contract with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project (BFHP). There were several drug arrests during the process, and a frivolous but expensive lawsuit by self-important Berkeley “activists” that cost money that could have been better spent on more services for the homeless.

The total cost of fixing this problem again (we cleaned up the bulb in 1999, but allowed it to be repopulated) was over $1 million. BFHP is using a housing first model, more about that model here.

Completing the mixed-use (formerly Whole Foods) project, the Solano Safeway upgrade and the Pierce St. Park.

Phase one of Pierce St. Park is underway, and the ribbon cutting should happen early this fall. There has been some progress lately on the mixed-use project at University Village. See this and this (the comments are amusing).

We are awaiting the appeal of the trivial but time-consuming CEQA lawsuit filed by local attorney Dan Siegal, best known recently for his (very) failed bid to become Oakland’s mayor.

Several Safeway stores were remodeled in the last few years in Berkeley and other nearby towns, but here in Albany we missed the boat, and are stuck with the same store we’ve had for decades. This is a case where NIMBYism let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and Albany ended up with nothing.

I’m sure Safeway shares some of the blame, but the real problem is how a small group of Albany citizens can hijack a process that could have led to a new store, a store that would have benefited the majority of Albany residents. Safeway management occasionally mentions plans for remodeling the interior of the old store, but no firm plans have materialized yet.

Implementing the city’s climate action plan in a manner that is consistent with broader regional planning (see

Several pending items are relevant to reducing Albany’s carbon footprint. We are trying to implement our Complete Streets process as we get grant funding. However, I can’t really take credit for that, since the process began before I was elected.

If we want to create more walkable neighborhoods (and less driving), we need more density, and that means reforming Measure D, which was a earlier anti-growth measure disguised as a parking measure. We have been working on these reforms, and we should be ready to put them on the ballot in 2016. More realistic parking rules will make it easier to create more secondary “in-law” units, as we have envisioned during the general plan process.

What still needs work? We need to make changes to raise height limits along our San Pablo and Solano commercial corridors to make three-story buildings more feasible, and we need to fix Albany’s unsafe sidewalks. One idea I remain opposed to is Albany joining any of the proposed community choice aggregation plans, which make no sense to me, as I discussed here.

Working with the Albany school district to make sure our youth and sports programs are coordinated and as fully funded as possible.

Now that I am the vice mayor, I attend the joint UC/AUSD/City of Albany 2x2x2 meetings. My first meeting will be March 9, and my suggested agenda items are: School crowding and how that will affect housing development plans, updating vaccination information for our schools and learning more about the scheduling of Cougar Field in the evenings.

Incorporating the latest sea-level rise and flooding predictions into waterfront planning.

I’ll have much more to say on the waterfront in coming months. It’s too big an issue to cover right now.


Traffic calming south of El Cerrito Plaza

First of all, my apologies for taking so long to write. It been a very busy few months, compounded by a bike crash and a bad case of road rash, oral surgery and a few nasty viruses that have kept me busy or almost totally brain dead in the evenings.

I said months ago I’d mention something about water use, but since it’s technical I’ll save it for the end for those of you who still have the energy to keep reading by then.


On the night of Tuesday Jan 20, the council took up what has been a controversial issue for years — closing off the streets between El Cerrito plaza and Albany to the south. I had watched, via KALB, the two Traffic and Safety Commission meetings in 2014 about the issue, which occurred on July 24 and October 23.

T&S did recommend closing the streets, a decision I found hard to follow at the time, and one that I came to disagree with as I studied the staff report for our Jan. 20 meeting. But before I get into the nitty gritty of the decision making, here is some background:

El Cerrito Plaza was constructed in 1958 (it has its own Wikipedia site). The streets south of the plaza in Albany (Kains, Cornell, Talbot, and Evelyn) have provided access to the plaza since its opening. Stannage St. does not go through. The border between the two cities runs east and west along Cerrito Creek at the southern edge of the plaza parking lot. This is where the streets could be closed, with barriers that would still allow emergency vehicles through.

Although some suburban style shopping malls began to be built soon after WWII, 1958 was still early for emerging suburban world of freeways and shopping malls. At El Cerrito Plaza, traffic planners allowed street access in a way that would not be done today. Similar examples are the on- and off-ramps to Treasure Island on the Bay Bridge, which was built in the 1930s. Freeways today would never be built with such short ramps.

In addition to the plaza access, there are two other important factors. First, the neighborhood just south of the plaza is zoned R3, the most dense zoning classification in Albany, and dense neighborhoods tend to have more traffic than less dense neighborhoods. Finally, Albany Middle School on Brighton is also just one long block south of the plaza (and a little east), and changes in traffic patterns could affect the safety of students walking to school.

At the meeting, I mentioned two points that were important to me. Various versions of projects on the plaza property have come and gone over the years. Back when I was on the school board, in about 2003, there was the idea of building a big parking garage, then later, various versions of condo complexes.

My first concern is that the City of Albany has been too passive and reactive — during the last 12 years we have based our decisions on what we think will happen on the plaza, and when those plans didn’t pan out, we dropped our plans too. The city needs to be more proactive, and the residents of the neighborhood deserve more consistency than they have gotten in the past from the council.

My second concern is that closing streets is far more legally difficult than many people realize. Closing streets is a process governed by state laws. Any effort to close these streets will have to survive an expensive and lengthy CEQA review. Toss in a lawsuit from either El Cerrito, the plaza management or one of the big retailers there (almost a certainty) and we are talking years before these streets can be closed. Given that San Pablo Ave. is a state highway, and that a street closure would affect traffic patterns there, Caltrans would also have something to say about our plans.

I am not suggesting we rule out closing these streets, but I am suggesting we go into that process with our eyes wide open and with a strong legal case. We are not there yet. In fact, given that our staff and professional consultants both have recommended traffic calming measures, we are in a pretty weak legal position. Even if we do decide to close the streets, we need to try traffic calming first so that we can argue to a judge that closing the streets is our only option and that we have exhausted all other remedies.

However, I am not yet persuaded that closing the streets is a good idea. For many Albany residents, access to the plaza is much more convenient via the streets in question than by driving around either to the San Pablo or Fairmont entrances. Traffic studies show that the traffic on these streets is comparable to the traffic on the 900 blocks of Curtis and Cerrito streets in Albany, two North/South streets between Marin and Solano avenues. However, smaller two-axle bakery and soda delivery trucks use the streets south of the plaza, and the council would like to see this stopped.

And as much as I favor walking and bicycling, a car is necessary if you are buying six bags of groceries, any many seniors are not able to carry heavy package long distances. For Albany seniors (and there will be lots more of us in coming years), easy access to the plaza in an automobile is important. Finally, closing these streets won’t make traffic go away — it will just divert it elsewhere.

As I said at the meeting, I am not persuaded (yet) that closing these streets is in the interest of Albany as a whole. The expenses for mitigating the changing traffic patterns, which could include new stop lights and widening parts of San Pablo, could run over a million dollars easily. Besides, there are very few cul de sacs in Albany. The vast majority of us live on streets with through traffic.

Fortunately, regardless of whether a plaza condo project is build or not, and regardless of whether we eventually move to close the streets, the solution is the same — implementing traffic calming measures now, possibly including speed humps, traffic circles, signage and striping. As the suggestion of P&Z chair Doug Donaldson, who spoke at the meeting, more than one council member was also in favor of planting trees, which have a traffic calming effect.

We don’t have to wait for a condo project to be built. Even if I knew no project would ever be built, I’m in favor of traffic calming. And if the project does get built, and if traffic gets out of control, then we are on more solid legal ground moving forward with street closure if we do traffic calming first.

But let’s be clear and not over-promise: Traffic calming will slow traffic, but it not expected to reduce volume very much. But from a safety perspective, it is slowing traffic that is imperative. Many of my safety concerns for AMS students can be addressed with traffic calming.

The five council members had nuanced positions, but they all supported unanimously the following three motions:

1. Directed the Traffic & Safety Commission to suggest language for the General Plan to allow street closures as appropriate;

2. Directed the Traffic & Safety Commission to quickly and aggressively pursue traffic calming in the area south of EC Plaza;

3. Directed staff to develop draft ordinances to address truck traffic and review with the Traffic & Safety Commission for recommendations to the City Council.

This is a good start, but I expect the citizens to hold us to our word. Needless to say, all council members have an incentive to get street calming done before the next election.


The average U.S. household uses almost 100 gallons per day per person. There are about 7.5 gallons per cubic foot, so the average person uses about 100 cubic feet per week, or about 5000 cubic feet per year.

Assuming that you live in a house in Albany with a fairly standard 50×100 foot lot (5,000 sq. ft.) there is an easy way to visualize how much water one person uses: enough to cover your 50×100 lot with one foot of water. If there are four people in your household, than the amount of water you use in one year will cover your lot in four feet of water.

Let’s make a few comparisons just to put this in perspective. Olives are one of the most water-efficient crops in California. A typical olive orchard uses enough water to cover it one foot deep over the course of a year. So if you planted your whole 50×100 foot lot in olives, you would need about as much water every year and one person in your household. As we’ll see in a bit, some other plants require much more. (In California, agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state’s water).

The average amount of rain that falls in the Bay Area is two feet per year (although not during the recent drought). Think about that — if you could capture all the rain that falls on your 50×100 foot lot, that’s enough to meet the needs of two household members. Of course, it’s not that easy, but it gives you an idea of how much potential there is to use recycled rainwater, if only for watering plants.

Finally, a typical lawn needs about four feet of water in a year, about four times as much as olives. In an average Bay Area year about half the water comes from rain, but the other half must come from watering. My little patch of lawn and plants is about 20×25 feet, or 500 square feet. Putting two feet of water per year on my lawn would require 1,000 cubic feet of water, or about 20 percent of the water used by one person. Scaling up, a 50×50 foot lawn uses about as much water as one person. That’s quite a big lawn my Albany standards. Do we need to get rid of lawns in Albany? Not a bad idea, but at least we could start by making them smaller.

And it’s pretty easy to show that if my old sprinkler system puts out 10 gallons/min and must supply 1,000 cubic feet (7,500) gallons during the dry half of the year (call it 25 weeks), than my system needs to pump out 300 gallons per week during the dry season, and that requires running the system 30 minutes each week.

Because lawns require (and transpire) so much water, along with trees, they help keep your house cool through shade plus evaporative cooling. But the era of lawns is probably coming to an end for California as water supplies dry up. Part of the problem is known as the “Triple-R,” the ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure that keeps reforming off the coast of California and diverting storms north (more here). The Triple-R is likely due to climate change, says this Stanford study.

For me, nature is providing a solution. The Bermuda grass from a neighbor’s lawn has taken over mine. Like it or not, it is a very hardy and drought-tolerant plant. Lack of watering won’t kill my Bermuda grass, because NOTHING kills Bermuda grass.


The anatomy of a bad decision-making process: The emperor’s new birds.


A brief note: On Thursday, Aug. 21, the council held a special meeting to appoint three new members to the city council. They are Rochelle Nason, Peggy McQuaid, and Nick Pilch. Details here in Damin Esper’s first Albany Journal article on the topic.

This is what my former school-board colleague David Ferrell called an “Albanian election,” when the number of candidates is equal to the number of open seats. In this situation, there isn’t much point in holding an election, which would have cost about $20K.

A week after the first article, a second article by Esper appeared in the Albany Journal. In the article, Esper quoted the concerns expressed by the local Green Party. I find the position of the Green Party curious. All the Greens had to do to solve their concern is run a candidate in the election. But I guess complaining about lack of democracy is easier than doing the hard work of running a campaign.

I’d like to think that things are better over on the school district side, but the reality is that if only one candidate dropped out of that race, we’d have an Albanian election there, too.

As a council member, I find this discouraging. Given the mess at the federal and state level, local governments are taking on more and more responsibility to find creative solutions to their citizens’ problems. Although I think Jerry Brown deserves credit for his leadership as California’s governor, local governments are still working hard to take up the slack. I just wish we could get people to pay attention.

But there is possibly a silver lining. Since all three candidates made it on the city council without having to spend a dime for campaign activities, there are no campaign funders who will be owed favors. In a few years, all the candidates will have to run again based on their records and what they have accomplished for the citizens of Albany, and not based on what they have done for the usual special interest groups that fund campaigns.


In my last post, now several weeks ago, I discussed the back-side issues of a proposed digital billboard facing the freeway in Albany. In this post I will discuss the front-side issues of billboard, the issues the city faces in regards to the people, birds, and animals that could see the front side of the billboard.

The digital billboard debate brings up many issues. I think it is important to discuss them because they reveal much about what we will be dealing with as we begin to turn the Albany Bulb over the park district. I wish I could say that I am optimistic, but I think recent events have shown that the bulb transition is likely to be very problematic.

As for the billboards, how people outside of Albany view billboards is an issue of low concern for me. Albany’s digital billboard policy was thoughtfully formulated, and respected the longstanding federal and state rules that the city must follow about the placement of freeway billboards.

The light from billboards also shines on wildlife, as do the lights from many other sources. This issue has been taken up by the various local environmental groups like Citizens for Eastshore State Parks (CESP), the local Sierra Club (SC) chapters, the Audubon Society, a spinoff organization known as SPRAWLDEF, and Citizens for Albany Shoreline. These groups are not really distinct entities, and members and leaders are shared between them in ways that are opaque to outsiders. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to them collectively as CESP/SC.

The billboard issue is the latest chapter in the long-running saga of Albany’s waterfront mismanagement. The Voices to Vision process cost the city about $650K, and was almost a complete waste of money. During that era the CESP/SC-dominated city council ignored the problem of the Albany Bulb, and allowed it to fester. That problem was not addressed until a new city council was elected almost two years ago that including me, and the new council spent about $500K cleaning up the bulb.

The digital billboard proposal has been the latest victim of Albany’s messy waterfront politics. The price tag this time, in terms of lost staff time and consultant fees, and the costs of redesigning the public works center, I estimate at $50K to $100K, plus the on-going loss of the revenue from the digital billboard. What ultimately made the city change course was the threat of a CEQA lawsuit from CESP/SC, a threat that blindsided the city. Let me explain.

During the bulb cleanup, the city reached out to CESP/SC, meet with them often and made sure that they were informed of the city’s plans and progress. In return, CESP/SC heaped praise on the city for cleaning up the bulb (you may have to scroll down). The city made a big effort to develop a mutually respectful relationship base on good will and common goals, and the city thought it had built such a relationship.

In retrospect, this was a big mistake (or perhaps it was a revealing experiment). CESP/SC, I have come to conclude, never did deal with the city in good faith, and the organizations lack the integrity and competence to be reliable partners for the city government or the citizens of Albany.

I will discuss this in the following two sections. First, a brief timeline will feature links to video of city council meetings. Then I will discuss some of the arguments CESP/SC have offered as a basis for a CEQA lawsuit against the city, and I will show that they are weak.


The digital billboard was originally proposed during the Fall 2012 campaign by the Sierra Club-endorsed candidate (and now council member) Peter Maass. I thought it was a good idea, so when the plans for a new public works center were being proposed, I discussed this idea with the then city manager, Beth Pollard, and I reminded her of Maass’s idea.

The proposed digital billboard was first discussed at length in the January 22, 2014, Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, now more than seven months ago. P&Z commissioner Nick Pilch, an at-large member of the executive committee of the local Sierra Club, made many thoughtful comments in support of the digital billboard. I was impressed with his comments, which you can review at the link below. The discussion of the digital billboard starts at 1:22:20, i.e. one hour and 22 minutes and 20 seconds into the meeting, and Commissioner Pilch’s comments start at 1:31:50. (Sometimes the council videos can be slow to load, please be patient).

There was another reason that I didn’t anticipate any problems—a digital billboard similar to the one we were proposing has existed for years at the corner of Virginia St. and the I-80 frontage road, and CESP/SC had been a party to a “grand bargain” that used money from this billboard to support the new Tom Bates sports facility at the foot of Gilman Street, just south of Golden Gate Fields, on the Berkeley waterfront. In return, the designated use of the Albany Plateau, which was to be playing fields under the Eastshore State Park General Plan, was switched to burrowing owl habitat (although no burrowing owls have ever been sighted there.)

Given CESP/SC’s history of acceptance of digital billboards, and the open endorsement of them by Sierra Club-supported members of the Albany city council (Maass) and P&Z Commission (Pilch), and that the city manager was meeting regularly with CESP/SC to discuss the bulb, there was no reason to anticipate any problems.

As it turns out, the Sierra Club was raising the issue of digital billboards further south. In an item dated January 12, 2014, 10 days before the Albany P&Z discussion of our digital billboard proposal, an item appeared in the Yodeler, the publication of the local Sierra Club. The article was about digital billboards proposed for the approach to the Bay Bridge in Oakland. Nowhere were the smaller digital billboards further north mentioned.

By May 19, that had changed. By then the Yodeler was breathlessly reporting that “a plague of giant digital billboards threatens to blight the East Bay.” In this article, the Albany digital billboard was erroneously referred to as “an enormous wall-mounted LED billboard.” Actually, the digital billboard planned for the public works center would have been comprised of two screens mounted in a V pattern, much like the digital billboard near the I-80 freeway at the corner of the access road and Virginia St. in Berkeley.

Oddly enough, the Berkeley digital billboard at Virginia St. isn’t included in the list of East Bay billboard “plagues” cited in the Yodeler article of May 19. Perhaps that’s because the Sierra Club was party to the agreement that used revenue from the billboard for the Berkeley waterfront.

Unless the Serra Club had only heard about the Albany billboard the morning of May 19 and rushed to post this story the same day, the Sierra Club was aware of it before then. This is worth noting because May 19 was also the date of the Albany City Council meeting. At that meeting, Norman La Force of the Sierra Club (West County Costa group leader  and chair of the East Bay Public Lands Committee) and the Vice president of CESP, stated that although he was working on the billboard issue both in Oakland and Richmond, he wasn’t aware of our the Albany billboard until “recently.” By May 19, the public debate had been going on for four months.

It’s useful to watch Mr. La Force’s comments in full during the May 19 city council meeting, which run for about three minutes starting at 2:44:18. Although it is subtle, note the threat of a CEQA lawsuit, a threat Mr. La Force made much more explicit in an email later to the council. Unfortunately, although I thought most of his complaints were groundless (see next section), CEQA lawsuits are often filed not to win, but to cause delays.

In this case, the city needed to move forward with the new public works center because of the expense of the lease on our current center, which we do not own. So the city decided to avoid the delays of a CEQA lawsuit by eliminating the digital billboard, although the result was an inferior public works center, and one that will be more costly to build out in the long run.

The issue here is not the billboard per se, but the four-month delay in CESP/SC speaking out, even though the city had made a strong effort to work with these organizations. After four months the city had committed tens of thousands of dollars to consultants and architects, plans, etc., much of which has gone to waste because the CESP/SC leadership claimed not to be paying attention (a claim which I find hard to believe).

The billboard issue was on the agenda again at the council meeting of June 9. By then, the staff had recommended that the digital billboard proposal be removed from the public works center project after the CESP/SC threat of a CEQA lawsuit. P&Z commissioner Nick Pilch spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, and it was obvious he had completely reversed his opinion. His comments, which I find embarrassing, can be found at 1:09:49. I think he got it right the first time, but you can’t serve two masters, and Mr. Pilch decided to place the his loyalty to the Sierra Club above his obligations to the City of Albany. I hope now that he is on the city council, Mr. Pilch will instead begin to serve the citizens of Albany.


As justification for his objection to the digital billboard, CESP president Robert Cheasty gave the city council a copy of the following document written by the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

The document starts with this statement:

“The Golden Gate Audubon Society objects to, and, where appropriate, will oppose electronic billboards, large neon signs, and other unnecessary sources of environmentally damaging light pollution.”

The Audubon Society next states four points, the first being the following:

“Many birds navigate at night by the stars and can be confused by urban lights. Drawn off course by brightly-lit buildings, they may be harmed or killed due to collisions with windows or they may circle buildings and other light sources until exhausted.”

MY COMMENT: Along the Albany waterfront near the foot of Albany Hill, the freeway itself is the biggest source of light pollution. But the second largest source, and perhaps the most damaging due to their height, are the Gateview Towers and other condominium buildings. By comparison to these two sources, the light from a digital billboard would be trivial. (For more on buildings and bird strikes, see this SF Chronicle article, and this Wired article.)

The Audubon letter’s  second point:

“Studies show that light pollution can cause urban birds to initiate their breeding earlier than their counterparts in rural, less-lit areas. ‘Our findings show clearly that light pollution influences the timing of breeding behavior, with unknown consequences for bird populations.’ (Current Biology, 16 September 2010, Volume 20, Issue 19, pages 1735-1739.) Early breeding can result in the birth of young during unfavorable conditions, including inclement weather and inadequate food supplies.”

MY COMMENT: I took the time to look up the Current Biology article mentioned in the Audubon letter (article here, supplemental materials here) It’s an interesting study, but the Audubon letter’s second point mischaracterizes it.

The area of study was a European forest plot, not an urban one, and it compared how birds on the edge of the forest fared depending upon the presence or lack of street lighting at the forest edge. While there was an advance in breeding behavior, it was only of a few days, so it was unlikely to have the negative consequences described in the Audubon comment.

The Audubon letter’s third point:

“The Fatal Light Awareness Program, which researches bird-building collisions, explains some light-related hazards: Many species of birds, especially the small insect-eaters, migrate at night. Night-migrating birds use the age-old and constant patterns of light from the moon, the stars, and from the setting sun as navigational tools to follow their migration routes. Artificial city lights interfere with this instinctive behavior and draw night-migrating birds toward brightly-lit buildings in urban areas. … observations found that once [birds] fly through a lit environment they’ll return to that lit source and then hesitate to leave it . . . The danger of artificial light to migrating birds is intensified on foggy or rainy nights, when the weather further obscures the night sky, or when cloud cover is low and the birds naturally migrate at lower altitudes.” (More info available at:

MY COMMENT:  I followed the link to the FLAP website where I found the bird-friendly guidelines published by the city of Toronto (eight meg. pdf available here).

On page 24, you can find descriptions of good and bad lighting practices for advertisements. I’d like to point out that the two billboards at the corner of Solano and San Pablo, which the city planned to remove under the agreement with Clear Channel, are the worst sort of billboards according the the Toronto document, because they are lit from below and project light upwards. Digital billboards do not spill light either up or down, and the off-axis intensity of the light is fairly low. You can check this for yourself by examining the digital billboard at Virginia St. along the frontage road in Berkeley. From a light pollution perspective, digital billboards are better than similarly sized conventionally lit billboards. (For more, see this interesting article on light pollution.)

The Audubon letter’s fourth point:

“Golden Gate Audubon does not believe that electronic billboards comply with applicable laws and ordinances. Oakland’s Outdoor Lighting Standards section 1.1(C)(6) specifically prohibits them. Moreover, electronic billboards violate the spirit of the Highway Beautification Act and are rightly subject to a legal challenge on that basis.”

MY COMMENT:  The Highway Beautification Act took shape in 1965, about the time the Beatles released Help! and Rubber Soul. 1965 was when the first U.S. troops began arriving in Vietnam, and the bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder began. The suburbs were expanding thanks large gas-guzzling automobiles.

The goal of the act was to make driving more enjoyable and scenic. But from the beginning, the act allowed exceptions for local zoning ordinances that covered commercial and industrial areas. The Highway Beautification Act was not meant to apply to areas like Albany’s commercial mixed use zone alongside Interstate 580.

But more importantly, the beautification act is an anachronism, and using it to justify opposition to the Albany’s digital billboard is an act of nostalgia, not of environmental awareness. I don’t think the planet can take much more of this sort of nostalgia.

Personally, I’m all in favor of highway uglification if it gets people off freeways and helps reduce their carbon footprint. Wouldn’t  the resources of CESP/SC be better spent on encouraging the use of public transportation and other alternatives to driving on freeways?

A deeper problem with the Audubon letter is that it refers to locations (European forests, mid-continental cities like Toronto) that don’t have much in common with the California coast or the unique type of birds here. Many types of birds adapt very well to urban environments–seagulls, pigeons, crows and Canadian geese come to mind. But in addition to these, there are several others–raptors in NY City, the parrots of San Francisco, and even barn owls in my Albany neighborhood.

CESP/SC haven’t presented any evidence that the types of birds that inhabit the Albany waterfront are threatened by the degree of urban and freeway light pollution that is typical of this area, or of any major metropolitan area (if they were, they wouldn’t be here). After spending a few hours at the waterfront near the location of the proposed billboard, I’m beginning to wonder if any birds of any sort find the section of the waterfront near the condos appealing.

The problem is not only light from the freeway and condos, it is also freeway noise. Short of tearing down the freeway, or building a huge sound wall which would have environmental issues of its own, I don’t see any solution to the freeway noise and light problem. I’ll discuss this more in the next section.


Some critics of the digital billboard claimed it would ruin the enjoyment of the Bay Trail. To find out, I rode my bicycle to the spot on the Bay Trail opposite the site of our proposed public works center. I visited this spot twice on my bike, both times in the afternoon, both times carrying a camera and binoculars.

The Bay Trail is a pleasant experience starting from the Tom Bates playing fields at the foot of Gilman Street and riding south toward Emeryville. It is also a pleasant experience riding north from Costco toward Point Richmond. In both cases, the bike path is far removed from the freeway and is quiet and peaceful.

The section of the Bay Trail between Buchanan St. and Costco is another story. It is located on a narrow corridor next to the freeway, where it is very noisy, windy and where the smell of the mud flats is nasty. I’ve taken several photos from the spot opposite the planned public works center below:


Bay Trail looking north from point opposite the proposed Albany public works center.

While riding or standing, you are right at ear level with the passing vehicles. It is very noisy. In addition, the Bay Area’s strong prevailing winds are out of the WNW, and this spot is unprotected from them.

Note that the public works center will be located just to the right of the Albany Steel building in the image below.


Bay Trail, looking east to site of proposed Albany public works center.

Just south of the public works center you can see the imposing bulk of the Gateview Towers. At night, the light pollution from the towers is second only to that of the freeway itself.


Looking southeast to the Gateview Towers, a major source of waterfront light pollution.

The final photo in this sequence shows the view to the south. Note how the freeway is elevated where it passes over Buchanan Street. That spot is considerably less noisy because the noise is projected overhead. In this photo, the prevailing wind, which is usually very strong (less so in early morning and in Autumn), blows from right to left across the photo. This explains why birds tend to shelter in the lee of the bulb, about 1/2 mile south, where there is less freeway noise and more shelter from the wind.


Looking south toward Buchanan Street and Golden Gate Fields. Birds tend to shelter there because the elevated freeway is quieter, and the bulb provides shelter from the wind.

At the spot where the above photos were taken, I never saw more than two or three birds. Further south I saw some seagulls. But 1/2 mile south, at the foot of Buchanan Street, I saw many more birds, including two white egrets.

Since my bicycle trips, I have made an effort to drive by this spot perhaps a dozen times in the last several weeks, and I have never seen any birds here, even early on weekend mornings when both the traffic noise and the prevailing winds are light. The major impression is not how full of bird life this spot is, but rather how devoid of bird life it is. I think both the strong winds are the loud freeway noise are the culprits. (Note: on the morning of Sept. 1, I drove by this spot in the early morning, and I did see several birds in the general area, although none near the freeway. Far more birds were located further south in the lee of the bulb and plateau.)


The follow three images are Google street view shots from three different locations of the Sierra Club-approved Berkeley digital billboard. It looks large or small, depending upon how close you are. But during the day, as you can see from the images, it is not any brighter than the other freeway signs. The proposed Albany billboard would probably have been smaller, but it is hard to say, since we never got very far along in the discussion before the threat of a CEQA lawsuit from  CESP/SC ended the discussion.

I visited this digital billboard twice at night, and it is considerably less bright than many other freeway signs and the brightly lit commercial area on lower Solano Ave., where the city was attempting two remove two existing conventional billboards.


BB2BB3The image below is a screen shot from Google Earth of the sites of the two billboards in question. In this photo, east is at the top, and the prevailing winds blow from the bottom of the image to the top, west to east. On the left edge of the photo is the Costco parking lot. In the middle is the Albany bulb, neck and plateau, and the racetrack at Golden Gate Fields. On the right is Caesar Chavez Park.


A Google Earth screen shot of the Albany waterfront showing the Albany Bulb, Caesar Chavez Park and the locations of the proposed Albany billboard and the existing Berkeley billboard.

The apex of the two red lines on the left of the image is the location of the proposed Albany billboard. Note how the WNW prevailing winds are not blocked at this location, while further south the bulk of the bulb, neck and plateau block the wind, creating a sheltered area for birds at the foot of Buchanan Street.

Also note that the location of the proposed Albany digital billboard is 880 yards, or 1/2 mile, from this sheltered spot. It is also across a major interstate freeway. These distances are comparable to the existing Berkeley billboard and the east-facing section of the paved path in Caesar Chavez Park, where the average distance to the billboard is about 1,000 yards.


View from Albany plateau to Gateview Towers, about 1/2 mile away. Note locations of Albany Steel building and proposed public works center. The proposed digital billboard would have been taller but about the same length as the Albany Steel sign, barely visible in this photo.

The image above was taken from the Albany plateau, facing east to the Gateview Towers. The distance is about 1/2 mile.

Notice the small bush with the two vertical branches on the left in the image above. In the distance, just to the left of the two vertical branches, is the Albany Steel building, with its large rectangular sign on top. Just to the right of the two vertical branches is the gap where the Albany public works center will be built. Even assuming a digital billboard there would be twice the height and the same length as the Albany Steel sign, it is dwarfed by the bulk of the Gateview Towers and other condos.


The leadership of CESP/SC has presented many less-than-persuasive arguments about how the proposed digital billboard would have harmed birds along the Albany shoreline.The reality is that existing birds along Albany’s shoreline would be just fine with a digital billboard, just as they are with the existing light pollution from the freeway and the condominiums, and just as the birds in Berkeley seem to do fine in the presence of the digital billboard within several hundred yards of the Berkeley waterfront. The extra light from a digital billboard would be unnoticed compared to the existing sources of light pollution.

When a burrowing owl was spotted where the Tom Bates sports fields are now located, an accommodation was agreed upon to address the loss of that hypothetical habitat. Under this agreement, the Albany plateau area, slated to become playing fields under the Eastshore State Park General Plan, instead became a protected, fenced-off area with pre-constructed burrows.

The trouble is that the owls never appeared (the comments following the story are worth viewing). And we know now that breeding pairs of burrowing owls will most likely never appear, since new GPS-based tracking technology has shown that the Bay Area outside the migration area of male burrowing owls. If any owls did appear on the plateau, they would be females. Other environmental organizations in the Bay Area have made note of this.

Now the CESP/SC leadership is proclaiming a hazard to birds from a proposed digital billboard. I think there arguments are unpersuasive (although even terrible arguments are a sufficient basis for a CEQA lawsuit).  Given the level of light pollution along the freeway, including the condominiums at the foot of Albany Hill, the light from Albany’s proposed digital billboard would be trivial. This is easily verified by merely observing the environment as you pass by on the freeway.

The track record of CESP/SC in predicting the benefits to birds of eliminating playing fields and digital billboards is not very strong. This makes me question the competence of these organizations.

But even more important, I question their ethics, and their ability to work with the city in good faith. Let me give you an example from the last few months. Albany’s city manager made a good-faith effort to reach out to CESP/SC. At one meeting, the CESP leadership actually insisted that the CESP members in attendance applaud the city’s work in removing the homeless encampment on the bulb.

Meanwhile, without notifying the city, at least one CESP board member, Brian Parker, begin helping organize opposition to the digital billboard among condo residents. I heard this from more than one acquaintance who lives in the condos.

Of course, if they had such deep concerns about the billboard, the CESP leadership and Mr. Parker in particular could have initiated a friendly discussion with the city about their environmental concerns. But CESP/SC didn’t take this step. The evidence leads me to conclude that CESP/SC deliberately blindsided the city, and were not dealing with the city in good faith. These facts make me question the ethics of CESP/SC.

As we move forward with plans to turn the bulb over to the park district, I think it would be naive to assume that CESP/SC will suddenly become more conscientious and reliable. Instead, I think the City of Albany, and Albany’s citizens, should expect more of the legal threats, blindsiding and half truths from CESP/SC. I wish I could come to some other conclusion, but there is nothing in the events of the last several months that makes me optimistic.





The anatomy of a bad decision-making process: Part One

There are many items I could discuss in this blog post, but I will save them for later, since I what to discuss is going to take some time.

I am concerned by the recent decision on the digital billboard by the city council. The process was so messy that the public never got a chance to learn what the issues are. I think that ultimately the council (including me) failed to fulfill its obligation to provide information and have a well-informed discussion about the options. So in the next several paragraphs, I want to have the conversation that I wish was held at the council meeting.

The billboard per se is not a huge issue, although $150K annually sure would be nice. But it is worth exploring because it shows how good local-government decision making can go astray, and I don’t want to see that happen again in Albany. In particular, I am directing this post to residents of the three Pierce St. condos, but I hope other Albany residents find it useful. This issues are nitty-gritty, but hey, that’s what local government is about.

In Part One of this discussion, I will restrict myself to what I call  the backside issues–how the digital billboard might or might not block views, or whether condo dwellers can see any light from the billboard. The backside issues affect Albany, so they are the responsibility of the city council. The frontside issues–how such a billboard might affect freeway drivers or wildlife–I’ll leave for Part Two. Here goes:

The City of Albany needs a new public works center for storing the vehicles, equipment and supplies that the maintenance staff uses for repairing pavement, sewers, trimming vegetation, etc. Office space is necessary, too. Currently the city is leasing a building along Cleveland Ave., but we have outgrown the building and the lease is getting expensive.

The city was able to purchase the site of the old Western Forge and Flange building just a few sites north of our current facility. The new location is 540 Cleveland Ave. The site is between the two freeways at the foot of Albany Hill, in front of the middle condos at 545 Pierce St. (images below). The old building there has been torn down and the lot has been prepared.

To help fund the project, the city planned to install a digital billboard which would bring in $150,000 in rental income annually. In my discussion with the city staff, I was aware there was more than one option being discussed. The options involved removing (or not) the utility poles and wires alongside the freeway, which would allow the billboard to be lower. The digital billboard company, Clear Channel, had agreed to pay all costs for the billboard, but the city would have to absorb the costs of undergrounding the utilities, an amount of roughly $100-200K.

At the city council meeting on May 19 I sat next to Mayor Peggy Thomsen (it was the last time I saw her, although I talked to her on the phone about the billboard several times before she died). I remember seeing the paper version of the agenda including the very ugly option 3 for the digital billboard. I had missed it because I have gone “paperless,” and I am still getting used to the iPad version of the agenda. I hadn’t noticed that particular attachment at the end of a long list of documents because you needed to use a little scroll bar to find it. Yup, I screwed up.  However, you can see it here:

Although that option was ugly, I was more concerned about wasn’t there—the other option that showed what the digital billboard would have looked like if we had undergrounded the utilities behind the new public works center. For some reason drawings of that option were not included. I’d like to think that, had I noticed this omission earlier, I would have asked that the other drawing be included.

At the end of the May 19 meeting, I stated publicly that I really couldn’t get a sense for what that billboard looked like in context of the surrounding space, so I decided to find out. Contrary to what many condo residents may think, I have, along with other council members, spent many hours in the neighborhood of the condos, visiting friends there, visiting the site of Pierce Street Park, driving along the street to think about the best location for the crosswalk, and measuring distances to the three condos in Google Earth. Let me show you what I discovered during my field research.

Image One below is a screen shot I grabbed from Google Maps. Based on the specifications in the billboard drawings linked above, the red area shows the region that would be in the shade of the digital billboard. Note the outline of the condos in in the Google Maps image.


Image One: Shadow of digital billboard. Red indicates region from where face of sign would not be visible.

No one in the middle condos would be able to see the front of the sign. However, residents of the far northern and far southern condos would be able to see the front of the sign from their buildings. This is a show-stopper for me, as it was for Mayor Thomsen when I showed her this image. Some additional screening could have solved this problem, but it doesn’t matter, because there is even a bigger problem.

Please take a long look at Image Two below. I will refer to it several times. This shot was taken from the parking garage in the middle condo complex (545 Pierce St.). The camera is looking west across the vacant lot where Western Forge and Flange used to be. This vacant lot will be the location of the new City of Albany public works center.


Image Two: View looking west from garage of 545 Pierce St., the middle condo complex.

 In particular note the tree you can see at the far end of the vacant lot, and if you can see them, notice the utility poles on the near side of I-580 that frame the tree. You cannot see the I-80 freeway in this photo because it is blocked by the wall of greenery just behind the row of diagonally parked cars on Pierce St. in the middle of the photo.

 Image Three below is taken at the same location, but from the I-580 freeway. This is a screen shot from a Google Maps street view photo.

Northbound looking east_cropped

Image Three: View from northbound lane of I-580, showing backside of former Western Forge and Flange building, now a vacant lot where City of Albany public works center will be constructed.

 Notice the same tree. The graffiti-covered building in Image Three is no longer there. That’s the backside of the old Western Forge and Flange building that has been torn down to make room for the public works center. Also notice the same utility poles that you can see in Image Two. The option shown in the May 19 city council agenda mounts the digital billboard over the top of the back of the new maintenance center to clear these utility poles. In order to mount the sign lower, behind the new public works building, the utilities would have to be undergrounded.

Now please look again at Image Two. If you look at the height of the utility wires, you can tell that a sign mounted at that height or above would block the view not of the water, but of the landforms in the background–the Albany Bulb and Angel Island. For me, this is another show-stopper. I can’t imagine that any member of the city council would have approved this plan, had we gotten far enough along in the process to see how high the sign would have been. In fact, I doubt if the sign would have survived the design review process in the Planning and Zoning Commission.

 All along, there was was a better option, but one that we never saw–so let’s explore it now. If you return once again to the parking lot view of Image Two above, you can see a large freeway sign in the image. It’s hard to make out if you don’t already know it is there, but Image Four below makes it clear.

Albany Steel building. Large sign is about 8 x 54 feet.

Image Four: Albany Steel building. Large sign is about 8 x 54 feet.

On the back of the Albany Steel building just north of the site of the new public works center is a big freeway sign. It is unlit, it is not digital, and by my estimates, it is about 8 feet high and 54 feet wide. By comparison, the length of one panel of the digital billboard is 48 feet, and is probably the standard height of 14 feet. In other words, one panel of the digital billboard would be taller but not as long as the Albany Steel sign. As part of the digital billboard, there would be two panels arranged in a triangle facing the freeway, as in the illustration in the May 19 city council link shows.

If we underground the utilities and put a digital billboard behind the new public works center, how would it affect the views? To see that, please look at Image Five below:

Image Five: View from garage with Albany Steel building cloned into public works space.

Image Five: View from garage with Albany Steel building cloned into public works space.

This is the same photo in Image Two above, but I have cloned in a copy of the Albany Steel building where the public works center will be (the city’s building will be much more attractive).

This is a useful comparison because, based on city records, the height of the Albany Steel sign is 42 feet above grade. The height of the public works center is about 40 feet, and if the utilities are undergrounded, the height of the top of the digital billboard behind the public works center would be three feet above the roof line. In addition, it appears in Google Earth that the elevation of the grade level in the public works lot is about one foot lower than the Albany Steel lot. That means a digital billboard tucked behind the public works center should be at the same height as the cloned building sign in Image Five above.

It is important to keep in mind that the height limit in the CMX (commercial mixed-use) zone is 45 feet. So, for example, if the City of Albany hadn’t bought this property, a private company could have bought it and built a building up to 45 feet above grade level. With undergrounded utilities, a digital billboard would be below the CMX height limit.

I would like to see a better analysis of this option with accurate drawings, but based on what I know now, as a council member, I would be willing to accept a digital billboard if three additional conditions are met: 1) No one living in the condos could see the front side of the billboard, 2) The sign is below the height limit in the CMX zone, and 3) The P&Z design review process has been completed before the proposal reaches the city council. I would be happy to see these conditions added to the digital billboard ordinance–and if they were, I’d vote to keep the ordinance.

The diagram below summarizes the options:

billboardsWhat has been consistently left of out this story is that the digital billboard plan was always intended to be swap. Two conventional billboards would be removed from on top of the Montero’s building at San Pablo and Solano, and two digital billboards would be added facing the freeway in front of the condos.

To make the revenue comparison equal on both sides, replacing the $150K of billboard revenue would require a permanent parcel tax of about $20 annually, according to an estimate from P&Z Commissioner Doug Donaldson at the June 25 P&Z meeting. That’s assuming the voters would go for it. Many might prefer the billboard option.

So here are the two options side-by-side. I think the billboard option is better for Albany, and I think it’s better for the condos, too, since there is a good argument to be made that billboard revenue should stay local. I personally would be overjoyed to see the extra revenue stay in the neighborhood by using it to help build Pierce St. Park. We’ve had trouble finding money during the last several months. You might disagree, but at least now we have more information and can make better comparisons.





Catching up on recent council issues

It’s been a busy few months on the council, time to catch up. First some brief notes:

In my last post, I discussed the generous health care benefits previous Albany city councils had approved for themselves. The current council did vote to eliminate the in lieu benefits by the end of the year. However, the council did not eliminate the provision that it is eligible for benefits better than those of the staff. Perhaps that issue will be resolved with the election of a new council next fall.

I had previously written optimistically about a new affordable senior housing project in El Cerrito. My optimism was premature. The project is struggling to find funding, a very common situation with affordable housing developments.

The council voted to sunset the waterfront committee. Although controversial for some, I thought this was an overdue decision. However, I am thankful for the years of diligent work by many Albany citizens who volunteered on the committee. There is an excellent discussion by Damin Esper of the CC Times here, so there is no need repeat his reporting.


Although we did get some rain in the last few weeks, we are still far below average. The last three years have been dry, and there may be more drought years coming.

About a month ago, the drain line under my kitchen sink (new with the house in 1926) became permanently clogged. While I waited a few days for a plumber, I took out the p-trap and replaced it with a 5-gal. bucket, which I emptied into the bathtub. I learned a lot about how much water I was using—the hard way.

Around the house, monitoring your water usage is harder than monitoring electricity usage. That’s because there are no smart water meters. I can easily monitor my solar panel electricity output and electricity usage via my smart meter and the PGE website. But I have to manually read my water meter. This isn’t too hard, at least if your house has a good meter.

Mine is right out on the curb, and is accurate down to about 0.01 cubic feet. There are 7.48 gallons per cubic foot, and 16 cups per gallon, so the meter reads down to 1.2 cups.

It’s tedious, but you don’t have to conduct the following experiments very often: Turn off all sources of water. Read the meter. Go inside the house, flush to toilet, read the meter. Take a shower, read the meter. Wash dishes, read the meter. You get the idea.

To check for any leaks, read the meter late at night. Go to bed. Don’t flush the toilet in the middle of the night. Get up in the morning, read the meter. My house doesn’t leak, which is surprising given much of the plumbing is circa 1926, and that my neighborhood has high water pressure.

I learned that low-flow toilets and shower heads really aren’t. Washing your car isn’t that bad. Hand washing dishes is a joke—stop being compulsive, just put them in the dishwasher, which uses very little water (although it does use electricity, unlike washing by hand). The amount of water we waste waiting for it to get warm is ridiculous.

Smart water meters would be fun, but the reality is that agriculture uses 75-80 percent of California’s water, so the innovation really needs to be there, and it is coming. There are some amazing remote sensing/GPS-based technologies that are already being used. Trouble is that more efficient water delivery systems will require considerable capital investment.

Here are some typical water readings from my house, in gallons, rank-ordered from low to high usage (remember, about 7.5 gallons per cubic foot). I’d be curious to know what reading other Albany residents get:

Flush toilet:                             2.6 gals.

Hose off solar panels:           3.0 gals.

Dishwasher, light cycle:        4.5 gals.

Regular shower (for me):      22.5 gals.

One load of laundry:              26.2 gals.

Wash car:                                30.0 gals.

Long hot shower:                  33.7 gals.

The average household in the U.S. uses 100 gallons of water per person per day. That’s hard to believe, but my house turns out to be pretty average. I am a little discouraged—although I thought I used less water during my plumbing crisis, it wasn’t reflected in my water meter readings. I’ll try to update these figures once I start watering lawn and garden in summer.


The city continues to make slow and steady progress in removing the homeless encampment on the bulb. The background on the city website is worth a quick review (here, here and here). Here is another good summary from Damin Esper from CC Times/Albany Journal, who spoke with City Clerk and PR representative Nicole Almaguer.

The only point I would like to add is that the city is also trimming trees and clearing brush on the bulb to create sight lines so that the police can patrol more easily, and to prevent new camps from being hidden in the bushes.


The council recently authorized $75,000 to continue funding the effort to remove the homeless and find them alternative housing. One issue needs to be clarified about thisthe difference in government jargon between authorization and appropriation.

At the state and federal level, authorization and appropriation are handled by different committees in the house and senate. Many different policy-making committees can authorize spending, but all these amounts must be squared against a budget by appropriations committees. In some instances, money can be authorized but not appropriated.

The Albany City Council is basically an authorizing committee. We vote to approve certain types of funding, up to a certain dollar limit. The city manager acts as the appropriation authority. In most cases the council gives permission for certain type of expenditures, but the city manager maintains discretion day-to-day and month-to-month as to how much of the money is actually spent. It is not the council’s role to micromanage the very diverse and complex tasks of our small city.

As I mentioned above, the council recently authorized up to $75,000 for continued homeless-related services on the bulb. But that does not mean that all the money will be spent any time soon. This is largely due to the unwillingness of some of the homeless on the bulb to take advantage of the programs the city is offering.

Mentally ill and drug-addicted individuals (even more so than the rest of us) put off accepting unpleasant realities for as long as possible. This is not in the interest of the homeless themselves, who would be better served by taking advantage of the opportunities provided for them to find alternative housing. Fortunately, several of them have done so.

The city and its contractor, Berkeley Food and Housing Project, have now rented three apartments in the East Bay and are moving folks from the bulb to these apartments. Special thanks to Albany resident and former chair of the Waterfront committee, Francesco Papalia. Francesco has been coordinating donations of furniture and other household goods for the apartments. He is doing a great job. To contact Francesco, see this Albany Patch article.


Finally, here are some relevant news items about homelessness. Little Albany isn’t going to solve this terrible regional and national problem all by itself. We have to be realistic. Here is a good video about the efforts made in Ventura, CA. As on the bulb, water pollution is a problem for San Jose, too.

For all its efforts, San Francisco has made little progress reducing homelessness in the city. And NYT’s Joe Nocera adds this sad reminder of one of the root causes of the problem in this comment.


On March 5, the council held a special meeting to hear appeals on the P&Z commission’s final approvals for the UC Village mixed-use project. The first appeal had been brought by housing advocates who complained that Albany hadn’t completed a state-mandated review of housing, known as the “housing element.” This appeal was moot by March 5, because the city had completed the element by then, and has begun working on the next housing element as part of the general plan process.

A second appeal had been filed by Albany resident Ed Fields, who had many concerns about the planned unit development (PUD)  aspects of the project. A PUD allows exemptions from local zoning ordinances for big projects. Creating a planned unit development requires the writing of “findings” to justify the need for the PUD. Over the years, I have disagreed with Ed on many issues, but he plays by the rules, does meticulous background research, and presents his arguments coherently.

I wish I could say the same for the audience at the appeal, which consisted of many Occupy the Farm followers, whose behavior was adolescent, disruptive and boorish. Councilmember Marge Atkinson, a former high school teacher, dealt with this with equanimity, due to her long experience with adolescent behavior. Mayor Peggy Thomsen did a great job keeping the meeting under control, although it was difficult at times.

On hand that evening were the city staff, our consulting attorney for land use issues, at least one member of P&Z (a professional in land-use law), and some representatives of the developers. Between them, there was probably a century of planning expertise in the room. So I was very confident by the end of the meeting that city had thoroughly addressed Ed Fields’s technical concerns.

However, I left the meeting feeling sad and disappointed, both for the city and for Ed Fields. Although I disagreed with his technical complaints, Ed’s concerns raised policy issues for the city, and I think, given that we were having the meeting, we could have had a much more thoughtful discussion. If only the audience had permitted it.

In particular, I wished we could have discussed how the city deals with trees, creeks and public space for our graying population—the broader policy issues that were touched on by Ed’s appeal. But these are all on-going concerns, so there will be many more chances to discuss them at future council meetings.


Although the members of Occupy the Farm are probably their own worst enemy when it comes to advocating for sustainable farming and urban farming, these are serious movements, so I wanted to provide some background information.

First, here is an article I wrote about agroecology 11 years ago now (pdf). Much of what I wrote then would now be referred to as “sustainable agriculture.” Agroecology has gotten pretty mixed up with the food sovereignty movement (pdf) and has become less scientific and more overtly political (pdf).

It’s not clear just how much sense agroecology makes from an ecological perspective (here and here). Many serious organizations are working on sustainable and urban farming (here, here and here). This includes UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, right here in Albany on the Gill Tract. See letter from CNR Dean Keith Gilless (pdf).

Many urban farming advocates, including OTF, like to talk about urban food deserts. Unfortunately it’s mostly a myth (here, here and here). When it comes to cities where grocery stores are within easy walking distance, SF scores second only to New York City, and Oakland is rated fifth, much higher than Seattle and Portland, which rank in 12th and 13th place.

Finally, on a happy note, Consumer Reports magazine just ranked Sprouts Farmer’s Market, the grocery store planned for the mixed-use project, and the fifth-best in the nation. Trader Joe’s was second, Costco fourth, Whole Foods 15th, and dead last, in 55th place, was Walmart. So I am looking forward to the day when I can return to University Village, where I lived from 1995—2000, and shop right next door at one the better-run grocery chains in the country.


Council medical benefits, the “Bell” test, and Complete Streets


When I joined the city council about a year ago, one of the first things I did was to attend a new member’s conference in Sacramento, sponsored by the League of California Cities. There I learned about the City of Bell in Los Angeles County.

Bell was an example of notoriously corrupt city government, where a handful of people stole millions from the mostly working-class Latino population. The courts are still sorting out the mess. “Don’t be like Bell,” we heard over and over again at that conference.

Since that experience, I have attempted to make sure that our city council here in Albany acts in a straightforward and transparent manner. I believe that everything the council does should pass the “Bell test.” Don’t be self-serving. Be transparent. Sadly, when it comes to medical benefits for the city council, we have failed the Bell test.

Let me give you the most egregious example. As council members, we get paid $300/month, a very typical amount for a small city in California. However, due to a vote the city council took in 2010, before I was elected, council members are eligible for an “in lieu” benefit if they have other health coverage and don’t join the city health care plan.

Because I already get medical benefits from my employer, I’m eligible for these in lieu benefits. If I chose to take them, and if I served for two terms (eight years total) I would quietly walk away from my council service with a retirement fund worth around $80K to $90K. This is in addition to my monthly wages of $300. Did you know that? Uh, why not? Let me explain how this came about:

City councils and school boards often allow elected officials to take advantage of their health care plans. This makes sense in a world where health insurance is very expensive for small business owners. Up until the Affordable Care Act (ACA) there were big economies of scale for large organizations, since they had more bargaining power and bigger risk pools than smaller organizations.

A city government could offer health care benefits to council members who were small business owners at a much lower rate than the business owners could find it on their own. If you wanted small business owners to serve, this benefit made a lot of sense. Small business owners often have to work extra hours to afford health carehours that they could spend serving on a city council or school board.

On the other hand, there really isn’t any good social-efficiency argument for offering health care benefits to elected officials who already get health care through their (or their spouse’s) employer—especially employers that are large organizations. However, because it’s not considered fair to discriminate, council members like me, who work for large organizations, are also eligible to join the city’s health care plan at no cost, even if we don’t need to.

Providing coverage for people who don’t really need it is expensive for cities, so to discourage this practice, our city government, along with many others, offers an in lieu payment. The payment is substantial, but less than the cost of the health insurance. For Albany, the payment is set at the level of the individual Kaiser health plan, which in 2014 is $742 per month. If I chose to take this money, it would be deposited in a retirement plan, and I would be able to withdraw it at the end of my city council service. That would be about $80K to $90K, as I mentioned, assuming I successfully ran for office again.

But wait, it gets better. Back in 2010, the council members not only voted for in lieu benefits for themselves, they also voted to give themselves better health care benefits than the city staff. City staff are eligible for Kaiser plans at no cost, but must pay the difference if they want a more expensive Blue Cross or other plan. The city council voted to give themselves the more expensive plans at no cost to themselves at all (however, currently, council members do pay the difference out of pocket).

 A few Albany citizens who were at those meetings were surprised and disappointed (to put it politely) and have been trying to raise this issue ever since. Council candidates were asked about this during the elections in the fall of 2012, and we agreed to review these arrangements.

 After I got elected I requested this item be put on the agenda, which it was, a few months ago. The council asked to staff to provide more background information, and staff has done so, in an excellent survey that is part of the agenda packet for the Jan. 21 meeting.

The report compares Albany to 26 other Bay Area small local governments. Of the 26, only 20 offer health care benefits to council members. Of the 20 that offer these benefits, only half (10) provide an in lieu benefit. Guess which city offers the highest in lieu benefit—Albany. Of the 20 cities that offer health care benefits, only five offer full coverage. Only one offers council members better benefits than staff—Albany. To be fair, some cities offer some benefits that Albany doesn’t, and those are mentioned in the report.

Our city staff are also eligible for an in lieu benefit, but they are employees, and their work is governed by a very different set of rules, including labor union contracts. And many city employees work far more than 40 hours per week, due to the number of evening meetings they must attend.

By comparison, I estimate that a city council member spends about average of 10 hours per meeting. We attend the meetings, study the agenda items, meet with the city manager, discuss with the citizenry and attend some other meetings on the side. With two meeting per month, we work about 20 hours per month, probably more when we are serving as mayor or if there are special meetings. A 40 hour per week job is at least 160 hours per month. So the way I see it, serving on the city council is a one-eighth time job, occasionally more.

 In addition to comparing our work to other city councils—an external comparison—we need to make an internal comparison as well. Many of Albany’s citizens volunteer for 20 hours per month with little or no compensation. Our own planning and zoning commission is a good example. Several athletic coaches in our Albany schools work long hours and get very little compensation.

So by both internal and external comparisons, I think the way the city council has chosen to pad its income is arbitrary, self-serving and hidden from plain sight. It doesn’t pass the Bell test. The solution is simple—the council needs to reverse the two votes from 2010 that gave the council higher medical benefits than the staff (the only city in our comparison group to do so), and that gave them the highest in lieu benefits of all the cities in our comparison group.

Before I move on, I’d like to emphasize again that current council members do not take full advantage of these benefits (although others have in the past). I’d also like to point out that there was only one council member at the time that voted against both the higher health care benefits for council, and against in lieu benefits. That person is Peggy Thomsen, our current mayor.


At the last meeting in December, before the holiday break, the council accepted the latest version of the Complete Streets report. (Staff report here, big pdf of full report here.)  I attended the planning meetings before I was on the council and I was impressed by the work of group of planners and citizens during the complete streets process.

There were two sticking points at the last council meeting that brought out several people to this discussion. The first is tradeoff between bicycle lanes and parking along San Pablo Avenue, and the second is the AC Transit bus stop at the corner of San Pablo Ave. and Solano Ave. Let’s discuss the bus stop first.

The problem is the bus stop for the northbound buses on San Pablo Ave. It currently stops before the stoplight at the Solano intersection, right in front of Montero’s. A much better idea would be to move the bus stop just north of the intersection, in front of Max’s Liquors. That way the bus is not impeded by having to wait for the stoplight to turn green.

From a traffic planning perspective, this is a great solution. For the businesses on the NE corner of the intersection, including Max’s Liquors, this is a bad solution. They would lose the parking spots in front of their stores.

 More generally, the merchants near the intersection are concerned about losing parking spots. While I am supportive of trying to maintain parking spots around the intersection, I am also supportive of getting the bus stop moved to a more rational location, which would be somewhere north of the intersection.

As I stated during the meeting, we had a complete streets planning process (mostly for Buchanan and San Pablo corridors), not a complete San Pablo/Solano intersection planning process. We will have to zoom in on particular trouble spots as we go.

The other sticking point was whether to eliminate parking along one side of San Pablo Avenue to make more room for bicycle routes. As an avid bicyclist and bike commuter, I am strongly opposed to this. No matter how much bright paint you put on the roadway, San Pablo simply is not a safe place to ride bicycles.

I am in favor of some striping for bicycles to solve the “half-block” problem. That’s the problem that occurs when you first turn on to San Pablo on your bike and you find your destination is in the middle of the block. I’m fine with encouraging short trips along San Pablo and keeping bikes off the sidewalks.

But I think San Pablo, a state highway after all, should primarily be used by cars, especially at night and in rainy weather. Cycling at night or in rainy weather is dangerous, although I do it on my commute to and from work. But I never ride my bike at night except to come home from work. It’s not safe unless you are familiar with the route and have memorized where the potholes are, because you can’t seem them at night, especially if a car’s headlights are shining in your eyes.

There are many safe alternative routes for riding bicycles, and Google Maps provides a great way to find them. Too see this, go to Google Maps, find directions from Point A to Point B as usual. Then move your cursor up to the horizontal set of icons that show a car, bus, pedestrian and cyclist. Click the cyclist on the far right, and you will get a route better suited to bikes. Try this route, for example:

 From: Albany City Hall, San Pablo Avenue, Albany, CA

To: DMV El Cerrito Office, Manila Avenue, El Cerrito, CA

Or here is another good one:

 From: Caffe Strada, College Avenue, Berkeley, CA

To: Oakland Kaiser Medical Center, Oakland, CA

In both cases, the car route keeps you on the arterial (San Pablo Ave, College Ave.) while the cycling route takes you on quiet side streets. We have many such options, so routing bikes along San Pablo isn’t a great idea. With many cyclists now carrying GPS-enabled smart phones, you can seek out these routes at any time.

To summarize: I am a big fan of the Complete Streets process, but there are many details to be worked out, and many compromises to be made. That being said, I think we are off to a good start.

Current news and the Gill tract yet again

Due to some recent information that has been passed along to me about Albany’s local history, I’d like to discuss the Gill tract again, in particular its “class one agricultural soil.” By the end of this post, I hope you agree that as far as the Gill tract goes, we’ve flogged this horse to death. Since getting there will involve a few long quotes, I’ll save my thoughts on some other big items for the next post, which I’ll finish soon. But first, here are some updates on current issues:

The AT&T cell site at 1035 San Pablo Ave. is finally working, after too many years of delay. I tried it out myself, and I could get good reception with my old AT&T phone along both of Albany’s two biggest streets, Marin and San Pablo (I pulled over, of course). Reception near city hall seemed good. Cell sites were also approved in Kensington.

I am as frustrated as anyone with the delays in getting bulb campers into our transition shelter and placed in housing. There will be a flurry of activity in January, but until the court documents are public, there isn’t much more that I can say. My apologies, but as I often complain, the public’s business moves behind closed doors once the lawsuits start flying. Some information is available here and here.

A five-story affordable housing project for seniors has been approved in El Cerrito. The 63-unit project, located on a large parcel that was formerly a furniture store, will include a clinic and retail space. This is exactly what I’ve had in mind for Albany, but it would be difficult to find that large a space here.


In my recent posts on the Gill tract, I have discussed evidence that shows the tract never was a farm, but a rose nursery. And if part of it was farmed, it was about a century ago. Now another shibboleth about the Gill tract—that consists of “class one agricultural soil”—can be tossed aside.

First let me distinguish between two different definitions of the Gill tract. The original Gill tract was purchased in 1890 and consisted of 104 acres of land, bounded by the railroad right-of-way to the west, Buchanan Ave. to the north, San Pablo Ave. to the east, and the Berkeley border, formed by Codornices Creek, to the south. Note that the current Albany City Hall, including the police and fire station, sits on the far NE corner of the original Gill tract, because Buchanan Ave. was rerouted on a curve to join Marin Ave. at San Pablo.

 gill new and old

The current Gill tract occupies about 15 acres just south and west of city hall, bounded by Jackson St. on the west, the new Buchanan Ave. to the north, San Pablo Ave. to the east, and the fence line to the south that separates it from the old Codornices housing area. The fence line parallels Monroe Ave.

In the Google Maps screen shot above, the original Gill tract is in red, the current Gill tract is in purple. These are the two definitions I will use below. Also note that Google Maps thinks Oceanview school is the Solano Community Church.

The mixed-use project consists of assisted-living senior housing south of Monroe Ave. and a supermarket north of Monroe Ave., in the area where the old Codornices housing was located along San Pablo Ave. The plan for the supermarket does have it extend north of the fence line into the current Gill tract, into an area where there is no cultivation, but where some trees will have to be removed or relocated.

Many thanks to Albany resident David Sanger for uncovering some interesting comments by UC agricultural leader Claude B. Hutchison (1885-1980), who was the first head of what would become UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Hutchison discussed many California agricultural issues for an oral history project of UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO). ROHO has some fascinating stuff on everything from early Portuguese immigration to the biotech revolution.

Hutchison’s oral history can be found near the bottom of the page here. The full text in pdf form can be downloaded, but the file is quite large. Here is an excerpt concerning the original Gill tract, recorded in December 1961:

Anyway, it [the Gill tract] was bought mainly for the use of the College of Agriculture. But only a small portion of that tract is good soil, the rest of it is a rather heavy adobe clay. But despite this and up until World War II I was still expecting that that tract would over the years become more and more useful to the college. But with the outbreak of war, the federal government commandeered a major portion of it and built war housing on it for shipbuilders at Richmond and more or less ruined it for agriculture purposes. We might have dug out all the concrete and so on like we did with the foundations of the old houses on the Oxford tract, and restored it to agricultural usefulness, but again, by reason of further developments at Davis and the need of the University for housing purposes, a major portion of the Gill tract will never be used again for agricultural purposes.

And we’ve had to struggle against the pressure on the part of the city of Albany which at one time wanted to run a street through it to extend Marin Avenue on a curve coming into Buchanan Street, and there’s been a demand for part of it for a school site. It is awfully hard to maintain a farm in the city because of various pressures. As I read the picture of the future it’s only a question of time until the college will have to give up its use of the Gill tract—maybe we can retain a small part of the area because we have built some greenhouses there and other physical facilities and maybe these can be held for a while. In the long run I think the chances are that the College of Agriculture’s work there will be closed up, particularly if at the same time the work here on the campus is transferred to Davis.

As mentioned above, Albany did link Buchanan and Marin streets, and now city hall sits on what used to be the far NE corner of the original Gill tract. The school site he mentions is AUSD’s Oceanview elementary school.

So the old Codornices area of Albany Village, where the mixed-use project will be built, isn’t composed of “class one agricultural soil” after all. Preserving that soil for farming has been one of the main justifications for the trespassing action there last spring by Occupy the Farm members and their supporters.

That there is plenty of clay soil around (like my yard) doesn’t come as a surprise to many local gardeners. Nor it is a surprise to USDA soil scientists. You can use the online map feature here to discover that the Gill Tract’s soil is classified as 148–urban land-Clear Lake complex. The program downloads slowly. Here is a screen shot:

soil map

For more information, you can see pages 25 and 31 of this 1981 USDA soil survey, but it is another big pdf. The two relevant pages are here in pdf format. I quote from them below:

From page 25:  148-Urban land-Clear Lake complex: The Clear Lake soil is very deep and poorly drained. It formed in alluvium that derived mainly from sedimentary rock. Typically, the surface layer is very dark gray, neutral and moderately alkaline clay about 37 inches thick. The underlying material is dark gray and grayish brown, calcareous clay and silty clay and extends to a depth of 60 inches or more… Adding organic matter to the soil can improve the rate of water intake, aeration, and soil tilth. Capability classification not assigned.

From page 31:  Capability classification shows, in a general way, the suitability of soils for most kinds of field crops. The soils are classed according to their limitation when they are used for field crops, the risk of damage when they are used, and the way they respond to treatment… Class I soils have few limitations that restrict their use.

I found an older, but helpful, soil map of Alameda County from 1977. Given the variety of soils in Alameda Country, it is hard to believe, as stated in a recent Eastbay Express article, that the Gill tract “is some of the best soil in the East Bay,” according to Occupy the Farm spokesperson Lesley Haddock. Claude Hutchison, someone who actually knew what he was talking about, didn’t agree.

I agree the current 15-acre Gill tract is most likely good soil, but that’s not where the mixed-use project will be built. Because of the decades of careful research and continuous cultivation of the current Gill tract, including plowing under crop residues at the end of the growing season to increase the organic matter in the soil, it makes sense that the soil there is good.

As for the section where the Codornices housing existed until just a few years ago—it’s just a vacant lot, with the same old clay soil that many of us find in our backyards and crawl spaces.

From an agricultural perspective, there is nothing special about the land where the mixed-use project will be built. There was nothing special about it when the Codornices housing was built there 70 years ago, and the intervening decades under asphalt and concrete have done nothing to improve the soil.

If the OTF at times seems to wander aimlessly about one corner of our little town, it’s because they are chasing something that never existed. The original Gill tract was never a farm. It was a nursery. But “Occupy the Rose Nursery” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. And if OTF members and their supporters can’t find more “class I agricultural soil” where the mixed-use project will be built, that’s because there isn’t any.