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By Douglas Moran

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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Flint Michigan disaster: Unusual only in its severity

Uploaded: Feb 14, 2016
Teaser: The Flint Michigan disaster involves most notably lead poisoning, which causes serious permanent health damages, especially to children. The immediate cause? In a city of 100,000, the state-appointed emergency managers decided to forgo a component of the water treatment that cost $0.001 per resident per day, or roughly $100,000 over the expected 3 years of the program. In addition to the damage inflicted on the residents, this omission caused an estimated $100,000,000 damage to the water mains alone. This was not an inadvertent mistake or misunderstanding: They had rejected warnings for over a year.

Introduction: Other people's disasters are reminders to re-examine your own practices and your hubris. Most disasters are unsurprising surprises: They are the result of an extended series of ignored warnings, omissions and mistakes--the cumulative effect of lots of little things. Given enough chances, the disaster was going to happen--what was uncertain was exactly when. One of the constants is that people and organizations become increasingly desensitized to the risks as they get away with mistakes, shortcuts... Too often close-calls don't provoke action to stave off the disaster, but have the opposite effect of making the eventual disaster worse because they undermine and discredit important safety measures. The two Space Shuttle disasters are commonly used as examples.(foot#1) The RMS Titanic disaster provides another interesting example. Some analyses of the historical record claim that the inadequate number of lifeboat did not result from a desire to reduce costs or clutter, but rather was the result of the passenger ship industry having dismissed the risk of a large ship sinking quickly. Lifeboats were seen as being needed only to ferry passengers to other ships that had come to the rescue, and that those lifeboats would have time to make multiple trips, and would be supplemented by lifeboats from those other ships.(foot#2)

The current public health disaster in Flint Michigan--lead and other pollutants in the drinking water--is a good example of the class of disasters one sees in governments and other bureaucratic organizations. If you follow Palo Alto governance and have read a summary of what transpired in Flint, your response will be that you have repeatedly seen the same categories of actions here. While you will read claims that what happened was the result of Flint's citizenry being predominantly poor and Black, that demographic is likely only a proxy for the ability of the citizenry to fight back and of the government's awareness of that ("Correlation does not (necessarily) imply causation"). There is a long history of drinking water disasters inflicted on a range of communities.(foot#3) In the general case of the citizenry getting steamrolled by narrow special interests, such as developers, I have friends in affluent communities similar to Palo Alto where they turn out in force at meetings that are nothing more than pro forma events where the officials make only a transparent pretense of listening to the public. In contrast, I have friends living in cities with more modest income levels where stable organizations (civic, social, religious,...) seem to be what allows their citizenry to have a voice.
Hanlon's Razor (many minor variations): "Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence/stupidity." to which I would add "(depraved) indifference".

I'm going to use only the details of other disasters relevant to my points. There are many online summaries of what happened in Flint, with new details arising almost daily. The best concise version I have seen so far being Flint's water crisis reveals government failures at every level by Lenny Bernstein and Brady Dennis in the Health & Science section of The Washington Post dated 2016-01-24.

The fundamental basis of the disaster was the appointment of emergency managers by the State of Michigan to takeover the running of the city government. This management was not accountable to the citizenry, and was primarily focused on finances. The technical basis of the disaster was the decision switch the city from the City of Detroit's water supply to taking water from the highly polluted Flint River. The reportage indicates that the emergency managers were focused on the savings, and gave little consideration to the true costs of the change. A similar dynamic can be seen in the Challenger Disaster: The managers (NASA and the contractor) were so focused on the politics of staying on schedule that they wouldn't/couldn't consider the costs of failure, even though their engineers were strongly and insistently warning them of the risks. You find the same phenomenon in commercial enterprises: "Ship the (unready) product on schedule--we can fix the problems later." This is especially prevalent in high-tech and especially in Silicon Valley: If the product or company fails because of this, those responsible for the (unforced) error simply move on, portraying it on their resumes as valuable experience. And this attitude--of "we can fix it later"--oozes over into our local politics.

The next contributor to the disaster involved government regulation. Flint's emergency manager is trying to deflect blame for what happened by claiming that their water treatment followed government regulations--not true, but we will get to that later. This category of regulation was initially established as minimum practices for the common cases. This was in part to protect the public and in part to create a "level playing field" for businesses, that is, to make it more difficult for businesses to gain competitive advantages by engaging in fraudulent, unsafe and other shady business practices.(foot#4) However, lawyers are trained to pervert the best of intentions, and soon corporate lawyers were arguing that the regulations represented the maximum that should be expected of their client, and that the responsibility for shortcomings lay with the regulators.(foot#5) The success of such arguments were a factor in leading to more detailed regulations, which are then labeled "over-regulation". You will see the hypocrisy of a business or industry group arguing against regulations by saying that regulations interfere with them using their expertise and judgment, and then turning around and arguing that they shouldn't be expected to apply expertise and judgment but rather only adhere to the regulations.

Regarding regulations as the maximum that can be expected has the dangerous side-effect of licensing an attitude that some regulations can be easily ignored. In Flint, the polluted water plus the treatment for the biological pollutants made the water highly corrosive, resulting in the biggest known problem: lead poisoning of those drinking it. The excuse that the Flint managers gave for not adding the required anti-corrosion treatment is that that they didn't believe that the regulations required it. The cost of that treatment has been reported as $100 per day, or roughly $100K over the three years that they anticipated using Flint River water. The result is an estimated $100M in damage to the city's water mains alone (a factor of 1000). The damage to human health is incalculable.

The regulatory problems extended into enforcement. First, there were people in the various regulatory body who knew that there were serious problems, but, to put it bluntly, decided that "getting along" was more important than "getting it right".(foot#6) They saw that others were dangerously not following crucial procedures, but they themselves were so committed to following procedure for intra- and inter-agency interactions that they effectively did nothing. Here in Palo Alto, the City Council has recently been increasingly willing to ask pointed questions of the City Manager and Staff and to reject recommendations. This is a welcome change from the mid-2000s when there were multiple Council members who were very deferential to the City Manager, including explicitly announcing from the dais that they didn't understand the issue and were simply going to vote for the City Manager's recommendation.

The second category of enforcement failures was testing that was incompetent, deceptive and even fraudulent, for example, biasing the sample selection to produce passing values. This was not just a few rogue employees. Part way through the testing, they were told that they were at risk of failing--a no-no because it is often perceived as instructions to manipulate the test to get a passing grade. There were officials who internally warned that the testing methodology would mask the problem. And the deficiencies in the testing were simple enough and on such a scale that it is difficult to believe that upper management would not have recognized it once the public raised serious concerns.

Palo Alto City Hall has a long history of avoiding enforcement of its ordinances.(foot#7) For example, current Assistant Director of Planning Jonathan Lait has noted that for Palo Alto to have the same number of code enforcement officers per capita as his previous city, we would need to have 6 instead of only 2 (he has been hoping to bring that up to 3). Palo Alto's deficiency is not the result of historical patterns or a needs-based assessment, but resulted from a series of political decisions over the past decade to have fewer enforcement officers. The cynical wag could characterize this as "A policy of not following its policies."

In addition to resistance to enforcement, City Hall often works to warp ordinances to the benefit of developers and at the expense of the public (for example, trying to change the definition of "building envelope" for the old University Arts building). The corrosive effect of this can be seen in the moratorium on PC zoning (Planned Community): Although PC zoning has potential legitimate uses, its actual history is one of flagrant abuse. People won't support change when they have been trained to expect that the promises made to them won't be honored--the whole point of having ordinances is that they represent an agreement among the competing interests about what is allowed, and that it will be enforced. Note: It is an encouraging development that City Hall is actually enforcing penalties for the empty grocery store at Edgewood Plaza.

The citizenry of Flint was not passive--far from it. They went to meetings to raise their concerns. They did their own testing. And it wasn't just the citizenry that saw the water as dangerous: General Motors stopped using Flint water because it was corroding their machinery. But the appointed officials dismissed all this. Only when it became a major media story did those officials begin to treat it as a real problem. This is reminiscent of the PBB poisoning scandal in Michigan in the mid-1970s (I was living there).(foot#8) The problems with public input has been a repeated topic of this blog (see the index below). Many citizens have been frustrated attempting to correct facts and analyses being proffered by City Hall, its consultants, and favored advocacy groups. One of the high honors is to be dismissed as one of "The Usual Suspects" (sarcasm).

I expect that the Flint disaster will continue to be in the news for quite some time. As you read the stories, think beyond the specifics of that particular situation. Use it as a "There but for the grace of God go I." Use it as a reminder that many disasters result from the confluence of many festering small problems that mutually reinforced each other and cascaded out of control. The RMS Titanic disaster is often treated as simply a matter of hubris--treating "unsinkable" as meaning "invulnerable"--but if you look at the slew of reforms that follow, what you see are "Could have, should have" measures.


1. Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster was recently in the news because of its 30-year anniversary (January 28).
Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster, 2003.

2. One elaboration of this analysis was presented in an opinion piece re-published in the Wall Street Journal (tiered subscription) of 2012-04-13 entitled The Real Reason for the Tragedy of the Titanic.
Note: The name of the author "Chris Berg" made me suspicious (close to "iceberg"). Although I couldn't find the article on the website of the supposed original publisher (Australian Broadcasting Corp), there are other articles there by an author of that name.

3. Examples: Fracking polluting the drinking water supply to the extent that one could set what was coming out of the tap on fire (subject of the documentary Gasland). Or the events in Hinkley CA that made Erin Brockovich famous (and subject of a Julia Roberts movie).

4. Although the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and its successors are typically portrayed as consumer protection, they had substantial backing from various businesses. For example, the big meat packing companies saw it opening up foreign markets that had been closed to US imports because of a history of dangerous product (unsanitary butchering, diseased animals,...). It also broadened domestic markets for smaller meat packers: The USDA inspection stamp eliminated the need to carefully research the reputation of the packer you were buying from. Aside: In recent years, there has been substantial backsliding--more "trust", less "verify"--with increasingly consumers getting sick or dying being the alert that a particular company was not trustworthy.

5. The Wall Street Journal opinion piece on the Titanic in the earlier footnote is an example of this argument (that the regulators were to blame for not having stiffer requirements). What it ignores is that the widely accepted analysis that the Titanic would not have sunk if it had been going only a little slower, in which case the number of lifeboats would have been adequate. However, even at the slower speed, the Titanic would have sustained massive damage--other ships near the Titanic had assessed the risk and decided to stop until the next morning. Were the regulators to blame for failing to factor in that a captain would behave in such a reckless manner?

6. It wasn't just lead poisoning that was ignored, but other problems, such as Legionnaires' disease.

7. I became sensitized to the problem of non-enforcement in the 1990s as a member of my neighborhood association board. There was a bar (now gone) that generated lots of criminal activities. Some were visible as patterns, but some were easily linked to the bar itself, such as fights and brawls that spilled out onto El Camino. In working with the PA Police Dept, we were told that there was drug-dealing going on in the bar's basement. Similarly for the pay phone that the bar had had installed on the sidewalk--a phone that was illegal both because it was on public property and because it obstructed the sidewalk. Getting the bar's liquor license revoked would have been effective, but City Hall was repeatedly slow in taking the steps needed. And when ownership was transferred between members of a tight-knit family, City Hall allowed this to be treated not as a sham transaction, but as a whole new ownership team that would eliminate the past bad behavior. It took years of pressure from a well-organized neighborhood association to get City Hall to finally clamp down on a business that was abetting criminal behavior, if not profiting from it.

8. PBB was used as a fire retardant on seeds for planting but got mislabeled as livestock feed supplement: Reportedly, the factory ran out of bags for PBB so they took pre-labeled bags from the other production line. The State government rejected warnings and complaints from a range of farmers about widespread sickness among their cows, chickens... The State's explanation was that there was a sudden, widespread outbreak of gross incompetence among highly experienced and successful farmers, many on farms that had been in their families for generations. Because of the State's failure to act, PBB became widespread in the food supply, with dairy milk being the highest profile problem. When the situation could no longer be denied, the State recommended that infants not be breast fed or given fresh milk. Although the health effects of PBB on humans had not be studied, there was substantial worry because of its similarity to PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyl) which was known to cause various serious problems. Also, the farm animals that received large doses had died in a variety of horrible ways.
For the political junkies: This provided an example that there was a time and place where large numbers of voters would cross party lines because of positions on issues or competence. The then-governor of Michigan was a moderate Republican, William Milliken, and he lost substantial support in the Republican-dominated rural areas. Some were upset with how long the State had ignored the problem, suppressed information, and treated farmers badly. Others were upset that he hadn't done more to suppress consumer concerns about the situation (private profits over public health). The cumulative effect was that he looked certain to be defeated for re-election (in 1978). But then an Irish Catholic clique in the leadership of the Democratic Party decided to stage a coup against the Party, repudiating multiple planks in its platform. There was a widespread revolt among Democrats. In Detroit, Black politicians and pastors were very visible in supporting the Republican governor, not just endorsing him, but introducing and standing next to him at events. The resistance in the liberal suburbs was not as publicly visible but just as strong. Consequently, the Republican got re-elected. It was truly amazing how many precincts state-wide had the vote for governor be the opposite of the dominant party for the other candidates on the ballot.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, don't waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
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Posted by Lydia Kou, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 14, 2016 at 9:37 am

Ahhh...all those policies City Hall makes and it is not that they cannot, it is WILL not enforce. As the blogger said, City Hall probably needs a policy to enforce their policies.

Palo Alto has a severe shortage of code enforcement officers, is it by choice? My understanding is that in the 2000s, City actually shrank the code enforcement department. Why is that department not growing in proportion to the growth in the City? City Hall will tell you that they recently hired another code enforcement officer, making the total to a whooping 3. They hired a code enforcement manager to manage the two in place.

Protecting retail space is supposedly an important city policy. But there are violations within sight of City Hall. City Hall received multiple complaints of companies violating the first-floor-retail zoning by using most of the space for office workers (software developers) and having a tiny area in the front that was supposedly "retail". Many didn't even try hard at this fiction - there were gaps in the partitions allowing passersby to see what was in back.

There are those that are quite obvious, such as, 565 High Street which used to be Jungle Copy in Downtown, today it is a company cafeteria that serves only its employees. How is it supporting the downtown restaurants?

Other examples are retail spaces with their front display windows covered up with white material, they appear vacant, but they are not. Such as,

786 Alma Street, it's a storage space for a restaurant 4 blocks away
Web Link

3457 El Camino Real in south Palo Alto Web Link the label on Google maps show it to be CC Restaurant Supply, but it is not selling supplies.

City Hall won't even enforce its own rules for the Citizen's Advisory Committee for the update to the Comprehensive Plan. The City Attorney's office told the CAC members not to publish opinion pieces or other articles related to the CAC discussions of policy, based on the Brown Act. But there is a CAC member who has repeatedly engaged in prohibited publications as a blogger here on Palo Ato Online. And his most recent blog explicitly mentions the Comprehensive Plan, a potential policy and implied opinion.

I am also a member of the Citizen's Advisory Committee for the Comprehensive Plan update and it is rather discouraging to spend time and energy to develop good policies when I don't have confidence they will be enforced.

Here's the City's code enforcement page Web Link It would be nice to hear your experience if you have previously informed the City of code violations and how they responded. Recent experiences would be great too.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 14, 2016 at 10:01 am

The blogger Lydia mentions, who is a member of The Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee yet keeps mentioning the Comprehensive Plan in his blog on TS, is also a founding member of Palo Alto Forward AND also serves on ABAG. He has a very obvious conflict of interests and yet is allowed to get away with it, repeatedly.

Posted by sunshine, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 14, 2016 at 2:56 pm

When I arrived in Palo Alto in the early 60s, there was almost no speeding on residential streets, Arastradero. Alma, Embarcadero or Middlefield. Why? Palo Alto Police set up ways to catch those speeding. Being stopped meant an automatic speeding ticket. Now, the only one that remains is an occasional group on Embarcadero.
I have asked why officers do not patrol our local streets to catch those who speed or glide through stop signs and lights (how many cars do you notice coming through the light on El Camino at page Mill after the light for opposing traffic has turned green? There can't be that many cars that were already in the intersection when the light changed. I have often witnessed 10 or more at a time running this light, especially left turns from south bound El Camino onto Oregon east bound.) Where are the offers to stop this? I have asked and been told they are busy elsewhere. Where?
Officers would rather patrol parking garages and street parking for excess (often by 5 minutes) time. Let's get after the ones who lead to dangerous situations.

Posted by Commentator, a resident of Professorville,
on Feb 14, 2016 at 10:50 pm

I wonder what award and/or promotion Flint's Emergency Manager received for saving that $100k.

Closer to home. Everybody who hears leaf blowers knows how lax our city hall is in enforcing laws that benefit residents. That point comes home with force each time I watch a cop car just drive past an active leaf blower.

Code enforcement. Are our CE officers overwhelmed, or merely undertasked? Most code violations are enforced, if at all, by complaint only. It is a system apparently designed to minimize staff workload and time away from the office. I don't know if it takes an act of council to rectify that, or if the city manager only needs to wave his scepter in the right direction. In any case, our recent councils have indeed shown excessive deference to their nominal employee the city manager, which is however a welcome step up from the abject groveling during Benest's reign.

We need more councilmembers dedicated to serving their constituency like Holman, Schmid, duBois, and Filseth, and fewer on verbose ego trips like Berman, Burt, Kniss, Scharf, and Wolbach. Be careful marking your ballots, citizens.

Posted by Humble observer, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 15, 2016 at 9:25 am

This isn't meant to drift the thread, but as an update to something Lydia and mauricio mentioned above. Yesterday, the blogger that they both referred to re-posted, as a Town Square topic "in the spirit of Valentine's Day," two mauricio comments he'd deleted from his blogs as "off topic." But after comments appeared questioning the blogger's motivation for the post, and his some-animals-are-more-equal-than-others style of deeming unwelcome perspectives "off-topic" (for instance, one mauricio comment deleted as "off topic" had forthrightly addressed the blog's current theme and opening argument), the Town Square posting disappeared, repaced by "Sorry. The topic you are looking for is no longer in the system." Web Link

Posted by Chuck Thornberry, a resident of Monroe Park,
on Feb 15, 2016 at 11:53 am

"...the Town Square posting disappeared..."

That probably happened at the request of its poster, or his wife, or the Weekly. Posting it was a dumb, spiteful act. The Weekly likely would not care to expose its fair-haired blogger (sorry, Doug) to the deserved ridicule he was receiving.

Dumbidity is certainly not unique to people in government, but their blunders tend to have much more catastrophic consequences than a reddened face or two.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 15, 2016 at 2:03 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

I am declaring as off-topic further discussion of that other blogger. Lydia Kou's comment was on-topic because it focused on City Hall's non-enforcement of rules for the CAC members, with the blog simply being the violation.

However, discussion related to the other person's blog as the primary topic belongs elsewhere, such as a Town Square Forum topic (anyone can create one).

Posted by Worry Wart, a resident of another community,
on Feb 15, 2016 at 3:02 pm

Excellent article, Douglas Moran. Thank you. What happens in Flint can happen here. For that reason, your article has touched upon some of my long-term fears regarding tap water and coastal water in California.

I am no water quality expert and what I'm about to say is off-topic, but here goes, anyway:

You probably recall that Mountain View, via Hetch Hetchy, introduced chloramine into its tap water circa 2006. I've heard you can't boil chloramine out of water and that it can kill aquarium fish. If chloramine ails aquarium fish, can it ail me?

Wealthy Los Altos has apparently had recurrent problems with the quality of or cleanliness of its tap water.

400 miles south, Riverside's tap water apparently contained a form of rocket fuel when my former boss and her sisters grew up there. She and her sisters all have hypothyrodism, which their parents (who grew up on an out-of-state farm) did not have. Did the tap water to which my former boss was exposed during her youth cause her and her sisters to develop hypothyroidism?

I'm even more alarmed by Fukushima radiation, which has reached our coastal waters. Dare I swim in the Pacific or eat its fish? Will the EPA adjust their standards of what constitutes safe levels of radiation in the coastal water on an ongoing basis during the years and decades to come?

All of us are the people of Flint!

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 15, 2016 at 4:33 pm

Over the prior five decades, government's approach to government has morphed from implementing collective services to government as an industry--government for the sake of government. From making necessary laws and enforcing them, from planning for a future that benefits the whole, to endless studies and jargon about policies, goals, and programs, punctuated occasionally by a fevered rush to promote a favored developer's project. I cite the way overdue Comp Plan as a prime example. I could add the 20 years spent contemplating a new police station with no visible result. I did not even mention 27 University.

We gotta not only take our government back, we gotta completely rebuild the for the people part.

Posted by Where Will It All End?, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 16, 2016 at 3:58 pm

"They hired a code enforcement manager to manage the two in place."

Of course. We obviously can't allow a pair of code enforcement officers to hang around their offices unsupervised.

Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 16, 2016 at 8:55 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I have complaining about fences in my neighborhood that do not comply with the PA Fence ordinance for almost 3 years. These are six foot fences next to the sidewalk. Palo Alto's ordinance requires fences no more than four feet high next to the sidewalk. Six foot fences need to be at least five feet from the sidewalk. The one fence that was under construction at the time of my first complaint was brought into compliance, after it was put up for sale. The next door property's fence is still 6 feet tall, despite having sold last month. There was a notice of code violation given to both the owner and the realtor listing the property, per my local code enforcement officer. I have no idea how the title company could provide clear title with an existing violation.

Further down the block, the owner has extended his six foot fence next to the sidewalk and has now added a shed next to the fence in the backyard, all within two feet of the sidewalk. As it is a multifamily property, I think the chances of someone living in the shed to be quite high. I'm still waiting on my inquiry as to whether the shed is code-compliant.

The real problem is there is no penalty for not being in compliance. As one city council member told me, the penalty for being out of compliance is that you must become compliant. I have not received any response to my email to this council member, pointing out that almost three years later, the properties I identified are still out of compliance

In addition to more enforcement of Palo Alto's code, we also need to have penalties with teeth so there is some consequence to being out of compliance. If property owners who hire gardeners who use leaf blowers were fined, they would stop. Instead, those of us who speak up to the gardeners and residents, are ignored or worse. One resident was certain leaf blowers were legal since "everyone else" nearby used them.

If Palo Alto does not want to enforce its code, it should change it. Allowing constant violations of the code leads to a general disregard of the government and even more code violations.

Posted by Plane Speaker, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Feb 17, 2016 at 12:53 pm

There is clearly something up with these same kinds of problems are
pandemic nationwide.

The same world-view, the same management techniques are being used
to suck money out of the public sector, and to defund and decimate the
public space. If there was a point to all of this private sector worship it
is over now and most American realize the mistake we made. No one is
claiming the government ought to reject capitalism, but what we have it
not capitalism, it is oligarchy, and it is the only hypothesis that accounts
for all the facts mentioned here.

The only people this benefits are the same people Bernie Sanders runs
against with his laser focus on the billionaires and corporations that are
turning our own country away from a leader in the free world, to a
military bully that rejects what every other country in the free world is
doing, and treats the average citizen these days with a blatant disrespect
and forces its agents to do the same, have the same mindset or be
ejected and cut off.

We need a basic systemic change when the only model that first what
is happening is a model that must be hushed up and swept under the
rug at any cost.

Having just seen the new Michael Moore movie "Where Should We
Invade Next", it as topical to see the direction other countries are
going contrasted with what we have in the US now. This never used
to be how this country behaved ... it's like we took the lowest common
denominator worst models from around the nation and institutionalized
them - and for what?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 17, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Explanation on the fence height ordinance (Marie's comment):

Fence height is required to be lower near the street for multiple safety reasons:

1. Visibility for exiting driveways, both for the driver to see pedestrians (sidewalk) and vehicles/bikes, and for them to see that vehicle.

2. For people on sidewalks and in front yards, the lower fences allows for them to be seen at a greater distance and consequently by potentially more people. Tall fences up to the sidewalk not only decrease actual safety, but also the perception of safety, which makes people less likely to walk or use their front yards.

Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 17, 2016 at 5:10 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Thanks Doug, for the additional information which explains why I bothered to complain. Note that fences that violate code, like many other code violations, are investigated only if someone complains. Code enforcement that depends on complaints turns neighbors on neighbors. Often, when property owners see other property owners putting up tall fences, they assume that it is ok and don't even realize they too are not in compliance with the code.

The lower fence also makes it more difficult to have other nonconforming uses behind the fence, like parking, accumulation of debris etc., all of which had to disappear when the fence next door was lowered to four feet.

Long stretches of six foot fences also make streets resembling tunnels. It is often combined with to vegetation in the 12 inches between the fence and the sidewalk encroaching on the sidewalk, making walking ever more difficult. Drive down the first few blocks of Loma Verde off of Alma Street to get the full effect. Some of these fences are grandfathered and others may have variances. But it still results in an ugly streetscape. Tall fences combined with overgrown vegetation and cars parked on sidewalks (possible when you have rolled curbs) leads to sidewalks that become completely impassible for pedestrians, a not unusual problem in my neighborhood south of midtown.

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