Citizens united over Palo Alto issues affecting their quality of life in 2015, holding federal authorities, City Hall and developers accountable for problems that included airplane noise, groundwater pumping, leaf blowers, traffic, Airbnb rentals and the failure to retain a grocer at Edgewood Plaza Shopping Center.
Residents turned out in force at City Council meetings, held round-table discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration and effectively organized through social media to get the city and other governmental bodies to listen to their concerns.
Here are the top stories that made 2015 a successful year for citizen activism.
Residents faced down the big guns this year. The Federal Aviation Administration rolled out its new nationwide aviation-flight system, NextGen, in April, but the federal agency's streamlining of flight paths increased the frequency of airplanes -- and the level of decibels -- over local neighborhoods. Palo Alto is the now the nexus of three major flight routes from San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which has created a conga line of aircraft over Palo Alto homes.
Residents were not going to accept the cacophony quietly. They formed a noise-abatement group with perhaps the coolest name of the year -- Sky Posse. Members launched a noise-reporting campaign of thousands of calls and emails to SFO's noise abatement office and lobbied city leaders. And they enlisted U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, who brought FAA officials face to face in July with leaders of multiple cities and residents' groups.
Also in July, the City Council included airplane noise as part of the agenda for its lobbyist in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. In November, Eshoo co-sponsored a pair of bills to reform federal oversight of the issue, including re-establishment of the Office of Noise Abatement and Control.
By November the FAA agreed to review the existing and potentially revised flight paths, plane altitudes and route-planning procedures, including analysis and preliminary feasibility study of new routes.
The practice of removing millions of gallons of water from the ground to construct basements for Palo Alto homes triggered outrage among residents in 2015, especially given the drought's fourth year.
Residents formed Save Palo Alto's Groundwater, which in the fall asked the City Council to place a moratorium on "dewatering" permits and to study the impact of groundwater pumping on Palo Alto's water supply.
The city's last analyses of the construction practice took place in 2003 and 2004, and the last public hearing occurred in 2008, before the drought.
Nearly 50 residents attended the City Council's Policy and Services Committee meeting on Dec. 1, with many demanding a moratorium. Committee members tentatively endorsed short-term reforms and added their own suggestions, including requiring contractors to analyze and remedy the impacts of the groundwater pumping; adding new fees based on the value of the water extracted; and finding new uses for the groundwater. The city would develop a broader long-term study on groundwater management, and they plan to revisit the topic in early 2016. This could include developing dewatering requirements tailored to the drought situation, according to a Dec. 15 Policy and Services staff report.
Edgewood Shopping Center grocery store
Crescent Park and Duveneck/St. Francis residents held a developer's -- and the city's -- feet to the fire this year after grocer The Fresh Market pulled out of Edgewood Shopping Center. The newly redeveloped center along Embarcadero Road was nearing full occupancy in March when The Fresh Market's corporate headquarters on the East Coast decided to pull the plug on all of its California stores.
Finding a replacement grocer within six months, which is required by the city under the site's Planned Community (PC) zoning ordinance, dragged on. Neighbors, who deeply want a market to succeed in the spot, jumped in with suggestions for center owner Sand Hill Property Co. and put out feelers to speed the process along.
Sand Hill staff said this summer that the firm had reached out to 40 potential grocers with no takers. Residents fretted that the developer didn't have much incentive to find a new anchor store: The Fresh Market still holds the 10-year lease, and Sand Hill still gets paid whether there's a grocery store open there or not.
In August, residents called for the City Council to fine Sand Hill for violating its ordinance and to prevent the developer from selling new homes it built at Edgewood until a new grocer is found. The council voted on Aug. 24 to fine Sand Hill if the grocery store space wasn't filled by Sept. 30. The daily fine started on Sept. 30 at $500, increased to $750 on Oct. 1 and rose to $1,000 for each day after Oct. 1 until the space is in filled. Three weeks after the council's August vote, Sand Hill announced that Andronico's Community Markets was interested in taking over the space. But so far, an official agreement has not materialized, and Sand Hill must still pay the fines.
Gas-powered blowers were banned from Palo Alto's residential neighborhoods 10 years ago but gardeners and homeowners still flout the ordinance every week. Irritated by the barrage of sound and dust, some Palo Alto residents this summer decided to make some noise of their own.
In June, when the City Council was weighing the decision about whether to budget for a new city code-enforcement officer, a few locals, including Midtown resident Bill Rosenberg, saw an opportunity. They complained to the council about the lack of enforcement of the 10-year-old ban, which also limits the acceptable noise levels of electric blowers and their hours of usage, and pleaded for help.
Council members responded by approving a new position in the Department of Planning and Community Environment to lead the code-enforcement team and implement ordinance enforcement. The city has recently hired the new code-enforcement officer.
Residential permit parking and traffic
After years of lobbying City Hall for parking relief, citizens succeeded in getting the Residential Preferential Parking program launched in downtown neighborhoods.
The program gives residents in the parking district up to four free permits and charges downtown employees $233 (or $50 for low-income workers) to park on residential streets. Implementation began in September, with ticketing of miscreants starting Oct. 13.
The program was instantly effective, though there were drivers who simply shifted to parking on residential streets just outside the permit zone. Neighbors living on those newly congested blocks then petitioned the City Council for inclusion in the permit program, and on Dec. 14 they got their wish. The council voted to add 12 blocks to the district and limit the number of permits issued to employees to 2,000. That phase of the program is scheduled to begin April 1.
Palo Alto officials also provided some seed money to form a new Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit organization that will work to convince people who drive solo to work downtown to take other forms of transportation. The group includes a city representative, downtown stakeholders and transportation experts.
The city this year also coordinated and replaced traffic signals on Embarcadero Road near Palo Alto High School and Town & Country Village Shopping Center after receiving voluminous complaints about perpetual gridlock at the closely spaced intersections. The city is also planning to improve the larger stretch of Embarcadero from El Camino Real to High Street and in December announced it is seeking feedback from the community.
In March, city leaders opted against regulating Airbnb rentals in neighborhoods after several City Council members broached the topic, seeking a discussion of taxing and regulating the short-term rentals. Some residents had complained that the "sharing economy" phenomenon was out of control on their blocks because of a lack of oversight by absentee landlords and a revolving door of renters. The council ultimately decided to monitor the situation and revisit the issue in a year.
The council's reticence could be short-lived. Residents again spoke out about the issue in October, when it became clear that single-family homes are being used as hostels and hacker spaces with as many as 16 people living in bunk-bed accommodations.
Read other Year in Review stories: