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City Desk: Oct 1 2014

City Endorses Real Service, Not Just Lip-Service, to Protect Domestic Violence Victims

The first order of business at the Sept. 23 Santa Clara City Council meeting was a unanimous resolution recognizing that Oct. is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and articulating the City’s active role in preventing domestic violence and in protecting victims.

Santa Clara provides an annual grant of $225,000 to Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, and was instrumental in building the Santa Clara HomeSafe shelter for abused women and their children.

In its resolution, the Council also called for increased education and programs to prevent domestic violence, referring only to ìrecent high-profile examplesî that have dominated the news. Critics, including the San Francisco Chronicle, have attacked City officials for not using stronger language and not naming names in the ever-growing number of domestic violence allegations against NFL players.

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After Almost a Year’s Work, New Historic Preservation Ordinance to Come Forward This Month

A long-awaited Historic Preservation Ordinance draft will be coming to the City Council for review in Oct., Santa Clara Planning Director Kevin Riley said at the Sept. 23 City Council meeting.

The ordinance addresses what can be considered for Historic Resource status, the process for making that determination, the permits required for any alteration of historic properties, incentives for owners of historic properties, ìdemolition by neglectî prevention, and penalties for illegal alterations and demolitions.

Santa Clara has been slowly groping its way to a preservation ordinance probably ever since the communal shock that followed the demolition of its downtown in the 1960s, and the dawning realization over the next two decades that old-timey downtowns were attractions that drew business and visitors, and gave communities cachet.

The current effort got off the ground more than a year ago, driven by a steady stream of renovations of Old Quad houses into mini-dorms, as well as a dispute over the restoration of an 1880 Harrison St. house. The Planning Dept. issued permits for the work without consulting the Historical & Landmarks Commission (HLC).

Historical & Landmarks Commission Gains New Authority

The proposed ordinance spells out the HLC’s role, putting it at the center of any project involving a historic property.

The current draft allows owners, the HLC and the City Council to introduce historical designation proposals. Applications would first go to the Planning Dept. for review and recommendations, and then to the HLC for its recommendation to the City Council. The Council must decide on proposals within five weeks of completing an application, or HLC or Council introduction. However, nothing can be designated historical without owner consent.

To be considered historically or architecturally significant, the property or site must be: at least 50 years old, retain historic integrity, and be locally significant in at least one of the following ways – historically, culturally, architecturally, geographically, archeologically, or for its natural characteristics.

Except in the case of dangerous and unsafe conditions, a special permit – Significant Property Alteration – would be required for major work and demolition, and the HLC would have authority to approve or deny SPA permits. Minor alterations – i.e. repainting – can be approved at the discretion of the Planning Director, who can choose to refer these to the HLC. HLC decisions can be appealed to the City Council. Permits won’t be issued for a property when an historical designation is pending.

Proposed alterations must comply with U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties and the California Historical Building Code, and not have a ìsignificantlyî adverse effect on the property’s historical integrity, or that of any historical property within 300 feet.

Owners can request ìhardshipî exceptions from the HLC if meeting these requirements would cause ìextremeî financial hardship, or the ìdamage to the owner of the property is unreasonable in comparison to the benefit conferred to the community.î

The draft ordinance also specifically addresses ìdemolition by neglectî – allowing property to deteriorate beyond repair, thus effectively giving the owner a demolition permit that would otherwise be denied. (This was what happened to the Morse Mansion’s carriage house.)

Owners of historical property, or a property eligible for historical designation, would be required to maintain it to ensure its continued usability, prevent structural and exterior deterioration, and preserve distinctive historical features.

Violations are punishable by fines, stop-work orders, and civil liability. In addition, illegal demolitions carry the added penalty of a three-year moratorium on expanding the floor area and density on the property. However, penalties don’t include the city undertaking necessary repairs and putting a lien on the property for the costs, or city take-over of neglected properties via eminent domain – used by some cities as a last resort for preservation.

The proposed ordinance suggests incentives to encourage preservation, but these are limited to zoning easements (many historic houses, for example, are higher than current zoning would permit in a new building), already-existing state and federal tax breaks, and city recognition.

It doesn’t address the situation of longtime owners – in some cases through inheritance – lacking financial resources for preservation or maintenance in the first place. For example, that 1880 house on Harrison St. had been unmaintained for half a century and lacked functioning plumbing and electric wiring when its owner died in 2011. The advanced state of disrepair was the reason for urgency in allowing the new owner to start work, the Planning Dept. said at the time.

City Joins NCPA Lawsuit Claimiing Overcharges for Hydropower

Water wars are familiar in California. But now, it’s the power that comes from the water that’s at the center of a Northern California Power Agency lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over what it claims are systematic overcharges to Central Valley Project (CVP) hydropower customers for payments to the CVP Restoration Fund. In August, the City Council voted unanimously to join the NCPA’s lawsuit.

The NCPA is a group of 12 California municipal power companies that jointly purchase power and invest in power generation, transmission, and distribution. The CVP – the vast network of irrigation canals, aqueducts, reservoirs and dams in the Central Valley – provides hydropower as an ancillary business. Building, operations and maintenance costs are distributed proportionally among customers. Water customers pay about 75 percent, while power customers pay about 25 percent.

In 1992, Congress created the CVP Restoration Fund to mitigate the CVP’s environmental impacts. It’s paid for with an additional charge on water and power customers based on the CVP proportional infrastructure charges. The law also allows additional charges and, apparently, latitude in calculating customers’ ìfair share.î

The NCPA claims Bureau arithmetic disregards the proportional payment requirement by assuming that it will collect the total amount allowable by law, and charging power customers the difference between that and what it can actually collect from water customers. As a result, power customers contributed 41 percent of the Restoration Fund’s revenue between 2008 and 2013. By the NCPA’s math, this adds up to $120 million in overcharges.

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