Planning and Traffic Remain Separate For Now; Plastic Bag Ban Looms in City's Future

The Los Altos City Council dives into old and new issues in its first meeting of the new year.

The Los Altos City Council tackled issues both old—planning issues and library parking lot safety— and new—plastic bag and polystyrene container bans—at its first meeting of 2012.

Here's a wrap-up of the council's actions.

Planning and Traffic Commissions Remain Separate

A controversial plan to merge the Planning and Traffic Commissions was bypassed by the Council for now, but a subcommittee continues to look at the structure of the two commissions, as well as the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC).

members of the commissions and committee let the council know in no uncertain terms that they did not support merging the planning and traffic commissions. On Tuesday the council ignored that staff recommendation, but it left other possible changes for later.

Specifically, the council set aside for the moment a proposal for the council to appoint seven new BPAC members, none of them current traffic commissioners, to staggered four-year terms.  Mayor Val Carpenter said having council appoint members, and excluding current traffic commissioners, would give BPAC some autonomy from the traffic commission in decision-making.

Although the council passed on voting for those recommendations, it did vote unanimously for the BPAC and Traffic Commission to write reports accompanying decisions, and encouraged the two bodies to send non-voting representatives to Planning Commission meetings.

The council also voted to eliminate the Board of Adjustments, a three-member committee comprised of Planning Commission members that makes recommendations on land use variances such as site area, setbacks, and structure heights.

The vote included limiting the scope of the Architectural and Site Review Committee, another subcommittee of the Planning Commission. In the past the committee reviewed all proposed projects for appropriate design and site planning, among other guidelines, but the council voted to limit it to review of all two-story single-family projects, and some single-story as referred by staff.

Instead of relying on the Board of Adjustments and the architectural review committee, the Planning Commission will review projects in a two-step process, first reviewing project designs, and then considering other planning issues.

A sense of urgency underscored the council’s actions on the Planning Commission portion of the recommendations. Some members said they were concerned about an upcoming large-scale mixed-use development on the site of Los Altos Garden Supply, 4730 W. El Camino Real. They said they want the full Planning Commission to review large projects, not a subcommittee.

In recent months residents living on Chester Circle behind the proposed project have pleaded with the council during public comment periods to protect their neighborhood. They said they fear the project will allow traffic access onto what is now a quiet court only traveled by residents.

Assistant City Manager James Walgren told council it would take months for the Planning Commission changes to go into effect, after the Garden Supply project goes before the commission.

“These changes are going to require extensive amendments to our zoning ordinance,” he said. “Even if we moved on this tomorrow we wouldn’t get done before the Garden Supply project.”

Walgren assured the council that a full Planning Commission would review the project, however.

The subcommittee that investigated all the Planning Commission, Traffic Commission and BPAC recommendations, comprised of Carpenter and Councilmember Ron Packard, is not finished. The two will continue to look at ideas to improve planning decisions involving development, traffic and parking.

For example, Councilmember Jarrett Fishpaw said he wants a clear decision on whether the Planning Commission or the Traffic Commission is responsible for parking issues.

Traffic and Parking at the Main Library

Cars creating a traffic hazard by stacking up at the entrance to the on South San Antonio Road could be eliminated with a plan accepted by the council on Tuesday.

The new proposal would eliminate the first three parking spots next to the lot entrance, replaced by three new spots closer to the soccer fields, directly across from short-term parking for book returns. It would also add a concrete median strip at the entrance to discourage illegal u-turns, and  create a new pedestrian crossing in the same area as the new parking spots.

While council members generally praised the plan, they did ask BPAC to review it for bicycle and pedestrian safety before the next council meeting on Jan. 24.

Another concern: the $50,000 project is not funded, but could be added in a mid-year capital improvement project budget review, which takes place at the next meeting. Councilmember Megan Satterlee said she wants to be assured that projects in the pipeline are being completed, before funding a new project.

In the meantime, staff confirmed that 10-miles-per-hour signs are on order and will be installed in the library parking lot in the near future.

Plastic Bag Ban in the City's Future?

Like San Jose and Sunnyvale before it, it looks like Los Altos may enact its own single-use plastic bag ban—albeit only at large supermarkets—possibly by next year.

Along with the bags could come a ban on expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging, the type of foam containers used for restaurant take out.

The impetus behind taking such a step is a requirement by the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board to reduce trash that makes its way into municipal storm water into storm drains, creeks, and eventually the bay. Under the requirement, cities must reduce trash by 40 percent by July 1, 2014.

Since actually counting trash coming from specific cities is next to impossible, the board devised formulas for reducing trash output, and from there developed a menu of actions that cities can choose to enact to meet the requirement.

Los Altos staff members told the council that the city could achieve 40 percent reduction by taking two actions: banning single-use bags at large supermarkets, and banning EPS from restaurants and markets.

Maddy McBirney of Greentown Los Altos urged the council to move toward the two bans. She said she had been trying to convince local restaurants to switch from EPS to compostable or recyclable containers, but it was an uphill battle.

“It’s very hard to get them to switch unless there’s a rule,” she said.

Of EPS McBirney said, “there’s nothing really good about it.”

Although the council voted to accept the staff report, the issues will have to come back to council in coming months for formal approvals.



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