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News + PoliticsDevelopment over gas main gets delayed again

Development over gas main gets delayed again

Planners still can't figure out what to do about a project that could disturb and old creaky PG&E gas line

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A proposal to build two large houses on top of a PG&E gas main on the side of Bernal Hill was delayed again today after the City Planning Department abruptly pulled its environmental exemption and said the plan needed more study.

Developer Fabian Lannoye wants to put the 3,000-square-foot houses on a steep grade on the south side of the hill. It’s the only place in San Francisco where a gas main is not covered by a city street – Folsom is discontinuous over the hill, so the large-capacity pipe, which is more than 50 years old, is buried in beneath the soil.

The "experts" at PG&E caused this disaster; why should we rely on them to do better in SF?
The “experts” at PG&E caused this disaster; why should we rely on them to do better in SF?

It’s a little strange to think about building houses virtually atop a gas main – and we know that PG&E gas mains have exploded in the past, most recently killing 8 people and wiping out a neighborhood in San Bruno. A court found the company guilty of failing to maintain the line.

But there’s a lot that’s strange about this project. (Full disclosure, I live in Bernal Heights and sometimes go jogging along the sidewalk near the proposed project. I suppose it might block my view south for about 15 seconds, more if I am running particularly slowly that day, but like many residents, I don’t think that’s really an issue. Getting blown up by a gas explosion is different.)

This has been before the Planning Department for more than two years. First, the department issued a Categorical Exemption, saying the project didn’t need an environmental impact report. Then the department withdrew the CADEX, and later issued another one.

Then this morning, just before the supes were scheduled to hear an appeal of that CADEX, the department withdrew it again – meaning that the developer, his lawyer, the neighbors who had appealed the project, and everyone who had an interest in it and had taken off time from work to show up for the hearing, essentially have to start the process all over again.

When Sup. Hillary Ronen, who expressed considerable frustration with the process, asked why the CADEX was withdrawn a second time, the department representative, Lisa Gibson, said that new information had come to light – a letter from the neighbors, she said, noted that construction work could cause sufficient vibrations in the soil and bedrock to damage the integrity of the pipeline and that had to be investigated.

If that’s the case, Ronen said, perhaps planners should just acknowledge that the project requires a full environmental review.

The developer was furious, and said that the delay would add more than seven months to the project construction. He argued that the city ought to defer to “the experts, and that’s PG&E.”

Nobody mentioned that PG&E, the supposed experts, were just found guilty at trial of allowing an entire neighborhood to be destroyed by corporate incompetence.

Another odd twist: Just before the motion to table the hearing, Sup. Ahsha Safai announced that he wanted to be recused from the vote. He gave no reason – until Sups. Malia Cohen, Aaron Peskin, and Ronen pushed back and asked why.

At first Safai would just say he had “prior conflicts.” After some back and forth with the City Attorney’s Office, Safai admitted that he had done previous consulting work with the developer.

So that’s interesting: How many other clients does Safai have who might be impacted by legislation or hearings that will come before the board? How often in the future will he have to recuse himself?

How will that impact his effectiveness as a supervisor – and why didn’t the voters know about that during his campaign?

So now this project is back to City Planning, where someone – presumably someone other than PG&E – will look at the serious public safety issues.

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Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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