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Community Meeting Planned on Kensington Streetlights Dispute

A community meeting is being planned to address the controversy over replacement of Kensington's old lantern-style streetlights on wood poles with generic "cobra head" lights on shiny steel poles.

A community meeting will be held to discuss the controversial removal of Kensington's old lantern-style streetlights, according to Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.

The meeting, whose date hasn't been set yet, will be hosted by the county along with PG&E, with participation by Gioia's office, according to Gioia, whose district includes Kensington.

A number of residents in the upscale community complained in late July when PG&E began removing the distinctive old streetlights on wood poles and replacing them with generic "cobra head" lights on shiny steel poles.

PG&E, which owns and maintains the lights, said the wood poles on the city's main street, Arlington Avenue, were old and needed replacing for safety reasons, which no one seems to dispute. The reason people got upset was that the new poles PG&E began putting in were not one of the decorative styles that PG&E offers.

PG&E said the county's public works department, which oversees streets in unincorporated Kensington, opted for the "standard" cobra-head poles instead of choosing decorative poles available from PG&E.

County officials said the decorative poles were too short and too dim for the safety needs of the Arlington, but some residents asked why short decorative poles are okay for the adjoining stretch of the Arlington in Berkeley but not Kensington.

A Sept. 11 memo to Gioia from county Deputy Public Works Director Brian Balbas echoed previous statements from the public works department that the old lantern-style lights were "standard" at the time they were installed 30 to 40 years ago, and so the new steel poles are replacing standard with standard.

The memo also says the 14-foot decorative poles in Berkeley carry 100-watt fixtures, while the old poles in Kensington were more than double the height with 250-watt fixtures. He also said the Berkeley section of the Arlington is residential while the Kensington section contains also commercial and high public use sections.

He said using a 14-foot pole with 100-watt fixtures at the current spacing of poles in Kensington "would not meet current lighting standards." He said the cobra-head poles (which average 32 feet tall) have 200-250 watt fixtures. 

PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said the utility offers the decorative poles with fixtures up to 150 watts.

Asked about PG&E's participation in the community meeting, she said, "I'm sure we're going to want to be a part of that. We certainly want to continue working with the county and the community to find a suitable resolution."

The project is currently on hold. After Gioia, in response to community concerns, asked the county public works department and PG&E about the project, PG&E halted work. At that time 40 of the new poles had been installed out of the 55-60 that were to be replaced, Sarkissian said. 

The public works department recommends that PG&E continue installing the standard cobra-head poles as "necessary to maintain the current lighting standard for safety along the roadway due (to) its geometric characteristics of multiple driveways (commercial and residential), skewed intersections, and horizontal curves," Balbas's memo said. "Arlington Avenue is a critical minor arterial that provides access into and out of the Kensington community to motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists."

At the same time, he acknowledged that it's unclear whether the shorter, lower-wattage poles in Berkeley cast less light. "It is difficult to compare the City of Berkeley’s lighting along Arlington Avenue to the County’s portion, since the wattage, light pole heights, and light spacing are all different," he said. "A complete photometric analysis would need to be conducted to determine if the lighting levels are equal, however it appears that the lighting along Arlington Avenue within the City of Berkeley is consistent with residential street lighting."

His memo also lays out other potential options:

  1. Acquire the streetlights from PG&E, a process that Balbas said is likely to be difficult since PG&E has indicated it doesn't want to sell, as well prolonged and expensive.
  2. Ask the Public Utilities Commission for additional streetlight options from PG&E, another approach that Balbas said could be costly and does not PG&E support. A decorative 34-foot streetlight a 200-watt fixture could be a solution, if it's available, he said.
  3. Install additional lighting at closer intervals, which might allow shorter poles with lower-wattage fixtures. This option, Balbas said, might be achieved through an assessment district, and would require PG&E concurrence if PG&E were to continue to own the poles.

Balbas' full memo can be found at the bottom of this article.

Gioia said that if PG&E offered a 34-foot decorative pole with 250-watt bulbs, the problem would be solved. "Unfortunately, they don't," he said.

"The main principle is that the combination of 1) less wattage (150 or 100 vs. 250), 2) on a shorter pole (14 feet vs. 34 feet) 3) and spaced 175 to 200 feet apart would not, according to public works, produce enough light on the roadway to meet their safety standards," Gioia said in an email. "In Berkeley, the poles are spaced closer together (average of 120 foot spacing with range from 76 to 150 feet).  Placing them closer together produces more light on the roadway than if they were 175 to 200 feet apart.

"It also seems that Berkeley produces enough light to meet their 'residential' standard.  Contra Costa Public Works seems to have a different lighting standard since the Arlington roadway has residential, commercial and high public use areas (such as the library and church)."

Here is the complete memo from Balbas to Gioia:

Supervisor Gioia,

As requested, County Special Districts made inquiries into the streetlight “history” along Arlington Ave, Kensington.  The existing street lighting along Arlington Ave, in the County, is on 34 ft poles (250 Watt fixture, non-decorative ) at an average 175 ft to 200 ft spacing.  The spacing is closer (100 ft to 150 ft) at the commercial area.  These lights are PG&E owned and maintained.

Special Districts performed a records search and was not able to locate any streetlight studies, or underground utility district files for the Arlington Avenue area.  However, the existing street lighting locations and standards are consistent with current County streetlight standards for arterial facilities.  In addition, given Arlington Avenue has residential, commercial and high public use areas such as the library and church along this portion, we determined the lights and spacing in place are consistent with our lighting standards for the roadway. Also, it is worth noting, Arlington Avenue is used by a significant number of pedestrians and bicyclists along the stretch that runs through the Kensington community.

Based on conversations with the City of Berkley, streetlights along Arlington Avenue within the City limits, are 14 ft high (100 Watt Fixture, decorative acorn style) at an average of 120 ft spacing.  The City stated that the intended spacing was for 150 ft, actual measurements varied from 76 ft to 150 ft.   These lights are City owned and were part of a underground utility district project (participating property owners contributed to funding the underground utility district improvements).   It is difficult to compare the City of Berkeley’s lighting along Arlington Avenue to the County’s portion, since the wattage, light pole heights, and light spacing are all different.  A complete photometric analysis would need to be conducted to determine if the lighting levels are equal, however it appears that the lighting along Arlington Avenue within the City of Berkeley is consistent with residential street lighting.

The previously existing centerbore wood poles and light fixtures installed 30 to 40 years ago along Arlington Ave, may appear to be decorative, but were the standard poles at that time and are not considered to be decorative by PG&E.  These 34 ft  high poles have 250 watt fixtures (relatively tall poles with bright lights) to provide adequate roadway safety lighting.  Thus, PG&E replaced “in kind” standard galvanized street light poles and fixtures (200 to 250 watt ) to match the lighting requirement.   PG&E does not offer a decorative light that meets the current lighting standards (34 ft high, 250 Watt fixture).     PG&E can offer an “acorn” decorative light pole that is 14 ft high (100 Watt fixture) for this centerbore wood pole replacement project.  Installation of this decorative light pole at the existing street light spacing, would not meet current lighting standards.

Public Works recommends that PG&E continue with their existing centerbore wood poles replacement project along Arlington Avenue. It is necessary to maintain the current lighting standard for safety along the roadway due it’s geometric characteristics of multiple driveways (commercial and residential), skewed intersections, and horizontal curves.  Arlington Avenue is a critical minor arterial that provides access into and out of the Kensington community to motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists.  PG&E needs to continue to replace existing centerbore lights for safety and improved future maintenance reliability (quicker streetlight outage repairs, less burned out fixture frequency).  There does not appear to be a relatively expeditious resolution that can accommodate PG&E’s schedule. Recognizing that the communication element of this project was not done adequately, prior to any work continuing we would further recommend that staff from Public Works and PG&E hold a meetings with the community to fully explain circumstances related to this project. It is vital that we communicate, explain, and listen to the community related to this matter.

At the request of the Supervisor, Public Works staff (in conjunction with PG&E) can host a community meeting to inform residents of the recommendation and explain the various constraints.  If the community expresses interest, Public Works can offer to explore the following options.

1.       Acquire the streetlights from PG&E.  Recognizing that street light options are limited with street lighting owned and maintained by PG&E, the County could pursue streetlight acquisition along Arlington Avenue.  The process will be lengthy and costly, and there are no guarantees of the outcome since PG&E has stated the street lights are not for sale. This process will likely require condemnation of the property from PG&E given they have stated on multiple occasions the lights are not for sale. Any proposed purchase of these lights in Kensington will require local funding by the community and likely take 2+ years to complete. While the County could provide additional alternatives for decorative lighting it should be noted that we too will have to carefully consider costs, limiting decorative selections to make maintenance feasible.

2.       Petition the Public Utilities Commission for additional streetlight alternatives from PG&E. If available, a decorative streetlight that is 34 ft high with a 200 Watt fixture , could be the appropriate solution to address the Kensington community’s concerns.  This decorative light would meet the aesthetic requests of the community as well as Public Works streetlight standards.  This process could also be lengthy and costly, and has not been met with a positive response from PG&E. Staff would need to research the steps necessary to make such a petition.

3.       Install additional lighting.  If so desired by the community, an assessment district could potentially be formed by property owners for the installation of decorative lighting.  This project would include new trenching and installation of decorative lights (with closer spacing than existing lights).  New streetlight spacing would be implemented along Arlington Ave (instead of current 175 to 200 ft spacing, go to 100 ft spacing) to accommodate the increased number of decorative streetlights that will meet necessary lighting standards.  This alternative would continue to have PG&E as the owner of the lights, so their concurrence on this alternative would be necessary. This alternative would require a street light photometric analysis study, environmental review, removal of existing poles already in place and placement of new decorative shorter poles with spacing that will properly light the roadway to current standards.

With additional public outreach now to explain the circumstances in detail, it may be prudent to revisit this issue in 6 months after the poles are in place to determine if the community is still interested in pursuing any of the options listed above. If so, those options can be further researched and acted upon. Sometimes, over time, a change such as this is not as “bad” as initially thought. We are definitely interested in hearing community feedback and fully acknowledge that we should have had a better communication plan in place prior to PG&E commencing with work and that should happen as soon as we can coordinate it.

Please let me know if you have any questions. If you’d like we can schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss this further or set up some time to determine next steps, including a meeting within the community. I think PG&E should be represented, so we need to coordinate with them. Thank you.

Brian M. Balbas
Deputy Public Works Director

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For email alerts to future articles on this issue, click Keep me posted below. To past articles on the controversy, click "Kensington Streetlights" next to Related Topics below.

Anna September 24, 2012 at 06:03 PM
Aren't there starving children somewhere in the world that could use all the attention being placed on this issue?
joanne paulsen September 24, 2012 at 11:05 PM
I totally agree with Anna. What a waste of time and space used totalk about such a trivial matter.
Toni Mayer September 25, 2012 at 04:46 AM
I disagree. If you live on the Arlington (and I don't, so I have no dog in this fight) it would be unpleasant and intrusive to have light from these industrial strength fixtures flooding into your house. The people from County Public Works who are making the decisions seem ignorant of the terrain and how residential the area is. Yes, there's a business section that's a block or two long and there's the church and the library, but there's no need for the amount of light they are insisting on. The Berkeley light fixtures are attractive and fit the setting. The light they shed is adequate and would be adequate in Kensington as well.
Adam Henry September 25, 2012 at 06:08 AM
Toni, People are not complaining about the amount of light. That's not changing. They're complaining because the new steel poles are plain looking instead of decorative looking.
Barbara Hill September 26, 2012 at 12:36 AM
The reason the Berkeley lights shed adequate light is because they are placed in the middle of the street, in the planted median, and the city of Berkeley has paid employees who keep the plants in the median trimmed. The Arlington in Kensington has very little median, only about 2 blocks worth, and is lined with trees on both sides (where the fixtures are located) which are probably mostly privately owned; and God forbid anyone should trim the precious sacred things even if they block the light. We have driven the Arlington at night and there is not ALL THAT much more light. I do agree that the "cobra" lights are not very attractive, but what's done is done, and unless Kensingtonians want to expend a great deal of their own personal money, perhaps it is time to give up and just deal with it.
George February 11, 2013 at 09:36 PM
Hi Adam, I think it is about the amount of light. So wasteful compared to Berkeley: so whatever happened to this issue? I drove by one night and noticed that the new Kensington lights are bright enough to read a newspaper. WAY beyond safety needs. IMHO, it seemed like a terrible **waste of energy**. The Berkeley lights were great for safety, even in the fog, and not so bright as to waste energy. The El Cerrito lights are a joke, and not even safe in the fog. Why isn't PGE or the county looking at that?

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