At a Jan. 17 town hall meeting sponsored by the Rockridge Community Planning Council, staff from the City of Oakland verbally announced yet another change in the proposed policy for the approval of sound wall studies, which would be the first step toward construction of sound walls along Highway 24 through Rockridge. Why should residents be concerned with such bureaucratic stuff? Read on.
In an earlier piece in the Sept. 21 Montclarion, I wrote that the Highway 24 sound walls are not needed and are a waste of taxpayer money. (For more information, see my website, www.RockridgeSoundwalls.org.) But sound wall pros and cons aside, the ongoing changes in the city's approval policy appear to be aimed at making the approval of the sound wall studies much easier -- stacking the deck.
The city did not initiate the Alameda County Transportation Commission's (ACTC) sound wall approval process, which had been publicized for more than a year as the one being applied. Instead, Wlad Wlassowsky, Oakland's transportation division services manager, made an administrative decision to create the city's own approval policy. This new policy has never been published, comments from the general public were not solicited, and the Oakland City Council was not consulted. And that new policy keeps changing. By contrast, ACTC's Freeway Sound wall Policy was published, publicly vetted, and then voted on at the committee
The approval policy will determine which property owners would be eligible to sign sound wall study approval petitions; and what percentage of petition signatures would be required for the studies, which will cost $1.182 million, to go forward. Before the Jan. 17 meeting, publicity (such as articles in the Jan. 5 Rockridge News) said that owner eligibility would require that their property see a freeway noise reduction of at least five decibels if sound walls were constructed. This is consistent with ACTC requirements for sound wall construction. The "State Route 24 Pre-NBSSR Noise Study" indicates which properties near Highway 24 meet this noise reduction requirement, and there are 135 of them. Most are directly adjacent to Highway 24 (first row); a few are directly behind those (second row).
But at the Jan. 17 meeting, Wlassowsky and consultant Victoria Eisen verbally presented yet another policy. The owners of 400 to 500 properties, including at least the first three rows of properties near the freeway, would be eligible to sign. The larger pool of eligible property owners would supposedly be justified because this would make the process "more inclusive." That is true. It would include people who would not see a noise reduction of even five decibels at their property, and who would not be eligible to sign petitions required under ACTC rules for actual sound wall construction.
The city also wants the approval threshold to be two-thirds of eligible property owners signing the petitions, compared with stiffer requirements from ACTC (100 percent of first-row and 75 percent of second-row owners). This lower percentage is proposed because the sound wall study petition process is deemed equivalent to other petition processes already in place and for which a two-thirds approval percentage applies. An example mentioned at the Jan. 17 meeting was Residential Permit Parking (RPP).
RPP petitions require that 51 percent of eligible residents sign petitions, not two-thirds. The rules for creating RPP zones were not simply mandated by city staff -- they were voted on and approved by the City Council. And every RPP zone that is petition-approved must still be approved by a separate vote of the City Council. See Oakland, California, Code of Ordinances, Chapter 10.44 -- Residential Permit Parking Program.
It appears that proponents of the Highway 24 sound walls are influencing city staff to make it as easy as possible to get the sound wall studies approved. I urge the City Council to assert its authority and not allow unelected bureaucrats to set policy that should be made democratically. You can contact District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb by email at Dkalb@Oaklandnet.com, or by phone at (510) 238-7001.
Jon Gabel is a 37-year Rockridge resident, former Rockridge Community Planning Council Board member and founder of the Rockridge DVD Project.