Citing “Vibratory Impacts,” Planning Department Puts Folsom Homes on Hold

Rendering of proposed homes, view southwest from public garden below Bernal Heights Blvd.

Rendering of proposed homes, center, as seen from public garden below Bernal Heights Blvd.

Something strange happened yesterday when the Board of Supervisors prepared to take up the ongoing effort to block the construction of two single-family houses on undeveloped land along Folsom Street, near the intersection with Chapman.

As Bernalwood described earlier in the week, a group of nearby neighbors have opposed the construction of two new homes at 3516 and 3526 Folsom, and  they recently appealed to block the project based on concern about Line 109, a PG&E gas pipeline that runs underneath the South Bernal length of Folsom Street — and alongside the lots where the two homes would be built.  PG&E has said that the pipeline is safe and inspected regularly, and that building homes alongside the pipeline route would be routine.

Last year, after compiling a 903 page project docket and twice voting unanimously to approve on the matter, the San Francisco Planning Department gave the plan to build the houses an unequivocal thumbs-up, in the form of a Categorical Exemption that eliminates the need for an expensive and time-consuming Environmental Impact Report.

All that was the backdrop going into yesterday’s meeting, where neighbors who oppose the new homes brought their last-ditch appeal to the Board of Supervisors in the hope that the Supervisors would vote to overturn the Planning Department’s Categorical Exemption and send the project back for further environmental review.

Yet as soon as the full Board of Supervisors began to consider the matter, it immediately turned weird. Lisa Gibson, a representative from the Planning Department announced that it was reversing itself, and summarily rescinding the Categorical Exemption that it had previously issued.

The sudden move appeared to come as a surprise to  everyone — project sponsors, appellants, and Supervisors alike — and much chaos then ensued.

D9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen spoke up to say that while she felt further environmental review of the project seemed necessary, the Planning Department’s last-minute move to reverse itself was “incredibly unprofessional and frustrating.”  In response, Lisa Gibson, the Planning Department’s acting environmental review officer, took to the mike to explain that the decision to withdraw the Categorical Exemption had been made on that same day, based on concerns expressed in two December 2016 letters from project opponents, and as a result Planning wanted to explore the risk of  potential “vibratory impacts” on the adjacent pipeline that might occur while the homes are under construction.

The explanation seemed to put Supervisor Ronen at ease. Although she again expressed frustration with the last-minute action on the part of the Planning Department, she added that “additional environmental review is required, because if [Planning] is finding that there is an unusual circumstance that requires additional investigation on the environmental impact of this project, then perhaps a Categorical Exemption is not appropriate.”

There was also a lot of frustration among the members of the public who had come to comment on the project, however. Lawyers for the families hoping to build the new houses said they had only been notified about the Planning Department’s decision to rescind the Categorical Exemption at 2:30 that day, or 30 minutes after the Board of Supervisors meeting had started.

An exasperated man, who appeared to represent the project sponsors, complained that the circuitous planning process had already resulted in a two-year delay and significant additional cost. “We’ve been here for two years now, waiting for two single-family houses,” he said. “Go and explain that to the mother of those children, who are wondering where are they going to live and what’s going to happen here.”

Meanwhile, several project opponents, including a representative from the executive committee of the San Francisco Sierra Club, said that while they were happy about the outcome, they were sad to have wasted an an otherwise lovely afternoon attending a meeting that was moot from the outset.

And so, with no Categorical Exemption to uphold or deny, the Board of Supervisors voted to table the matter. In practical terms, that leaves the proposal to build the two homes on Folsom in limbo, again, as Planning will require further environmental study before taking it up again.

Yet what really happened? Why did the Planning Department reverse course on its Categorical Exemption, and at such a late hour? It’s difficult to know for sure, but sources familiar with San Francisco’s planning process say such last-minute reversals are unusual, and may indicate Planning Department staff had come under pressure from other City officials to subject the project to further scrutiny.

49 thoughts on “Citing “Vibratory Impacts,” Planning Department Puts Folsom Homes on Hold

  1. This is ridiculous. Why would anyone buy property in San Francisco with the idea of building a home unless they had unlimited amounts of money to pour into it? And some projects get green lighted in the blink of an eye. Maybe it’s time for the Chronicle to investigate the Planning Department and it’s erratic decision-making. By the way, I have no connection to any of the parties involved here except that I live in BH.

    • SF is built in landfill and on (literally) slippery slopes. It is good that the Planning Commission takes another look at the project. After all, SF has had lots of sinkholes (16th & Valencia, for instance), a few landslides (Camino del Mar, for instance), and broken gas mains (the Marina in 1989, for instance). And right now, the Millennium Tower has sunk 16 inches and tilted, endangering gas and water utilities there.

      If you want to get rich building in SF you have to take your chances. If you want a sure thing, go build in Walnut Creek.

  2. Wait. Construction generates vibrations? I’m sure glad we have planning to figure out these esoteric matters.

  3. I know it’s a steep hill, but in the grand scheme of San Francisco construction these are simple projects that should not have been delayed for this long.

  4. Yet another example of the planning department diving for political cover (oh no! the sierra club is getting involved!) and using alternative facts to justify nonsense. It’s bad government and makes me sick.

  5. Am I the only one who thinks that if there actually are vibratory impacts to that pipeline that it’s a really good thing that the Planning Department is stepping up to say that they might have effed up?

    I dunno, I saw the smoke from the San Bruno blast as it came into the air from this neighborhood. I watched it burn and knew it was something huge. I am not saying anything about whether there will be vibratory impacts or whether PGE does a good job monitoring the line. I just can’t blame Planning if they choose to go the cautious route on this. Land is complex. Infrastructure is getting old around these parts. Planning has a sinking tower whose tenants are suing SF rather than the company that built and sold it to them. Frankly, if they’re worried, I’m glad they took back the CatEx.

    Weird and frustrating for the developers, sure. But as someone who has worked in government, when it comes to public safety, you take the cautious approach. That’s what the public expects and demands, even when those demands come after something has gone wrong.

    • Isn’t this more of a DBI issue than planning? And, seriously, planning just now realized that construction causes vibrations? Doesn’t pass the smell test.

    • I’m also extremely skeptical that this is a legitimate issue. Per the previous post, PG&E wasn’t concerned, so why would the Planning Dept be?

      Presumably these pipelines are engineered to withstand major earthquakes; I find it very hard to believe that construction equipment would shake the ground remotely as much.

    • Yes. You are the only one.

      Except I doubt even you believe this is a legitimate concern. It is the ugly side of ugly, selfish, entitled, privileged, spoiled, shameless San Franciscans.

      If I were the owners-to-be, whenever I moved into whatever homes I’m finally allowed to build, I would dedicate my life to making sure none of the opponents ever does so much as paint window sill, or replace a shingle on their home without tying up the process in every way I possibly could. For the sake of neighborhood peace, I hope the new owners are better people than I am.

      Of, course this is all legal and allowed. And the opponents feel no guilt for what is the very definition of self-centered behavior.

      I’m once again ashamed to be a neighbor of people like them.

      • Good grief! Listen to yourself. How can you doubt my sincerity when you don’t even know me? You acknowledge that this IS legal and allowed.

        You can be ashamed to be a neighbor of “people like them” all you want but this suspicion and distrust – most of which is cultured online – is ripping us all apart. From Bernal Heights to the national scale.

        When I can’t even have a reasonable conversation with my neighbors in which I make no claims about who is right, express sympathy with each side and yet still assert that I think our safety comes first without responses like yours, I know the conversation is pointless.

        Goodbye Bernalwood blog. This hatefest isn’t helping.

  6. Based on the cracks that are appearing in my house – across the street from the construction on Brewster – I would say that there is certainly many vibratory impacts from any construction project. And to take the risk of building in direct contact with that pipeline is extremely risky. I hope the project gets shut down completely.

  7. The planning and permitting department in this city should all be fired. All the regulation wiped away. Start over with a clean slate.

    I’ve been amazed when trying to do simple home renovations like replacing a window or getting a sign off on a simple permit to replace existing fixtures. They are completely inconsistent. Depending on who you talk to, you get contradictory information and decisions.

    All of which adds to the cost of housing.

  8. Lets call a spade a spade and stop playing local politics theater. The neighbors are worried about their street parking. This has been and will always be the reason neighbors go to city hall to fight new construction.

  9. Hey NSFW more people on the street means that the parking spot right in front of my door WILL be in jeopardy. You’re making light of this but have you ever carried groceries for a full block?! Groceries are extremely heavy. Furthermore, the space that these houses will occupy currently is serving as an open space for my children, and these people want to build on it? Whatever technicality I have to find to delay this inevitable construction is worth it, because I know what is right and everyone else is confused. Its like when I go to Holly Park and see the sign about dogs needing to be on leashes but what that sign doesnt respect or realize is that I WANT to let my dog off the leash.

  10. It is very difficult to secure approvals to develop vacant parcels on otherwise fully developed residential blocks in this city. It isn’t a secret, it isn’t new, and it isn’t a conspiracy. The whole process is openly and intentionally set up to be conservative about changing the status quo, in order to balance the interests of people who who already live in the neighborhood against the interests of people who stand to make very large profits by building low-density housing in established neighborhoods.

    The consequential housing issues deserving of attention in our neighborhood are the lack of affordable, high density housing for moderate and low income people, the difficulty of finding appropriate sites for that kind of housing, and the widespread and unlawful conversion of existing housing units into tourist rentals. Whether or not a couple of additional houses may or may not be built for very wealthy people is a diversion from the housing issues that deserve our attention.

    And for the record, the Sierra Club is an anti-NIMBY organization that supports high density housing. It doesn’t generally weigh in on developer projects like this one, and its interest is a signal that there are legitimate, non-pretextural issues worthy of analysis with regard to this site.

    • The San Francisco Sierra Club should be called the NIMBY Club. Count on them to oppose the new housing we need to make San Francisco more affordable for everyone. No surprise Sierra Club is sticking their nose into this by siding with a bunch of NIMBY homeowners.

      Talk is cheap. Preach to me when you’re serious about building some “high density housing for moderate and low income people” right here on Folsom

    • Thanks for your comment. The insinuation by landowners that families are going homeless because their multimillion dollar house is delayed is laughable.

    • Your comment is foolish. The Sierra Club endorses several projects–including the destruction of nearly 500,000 mature trees on San Francisco-owned land and up to 1 million more in the East Bay–that demonstrate how misguided its current agenda is. Yes, you read those numbers correctly. Perhaps they really resented the term “tree-hugger” and set out to prove the opposite?

      The Sierra Club has lost its way. It should be ignored on this and many other matters.

    • Yes, they supported Prop B, which basically prohibits density in the most transit-rich area of the city so that wealthy homeowners didn’t have to suffer a degradation of their views.

  11. If this were a parable about justice, instead of real life, those two lots would end up being developed to the exact wishes of the opponents. On ribbon cutting day they would discover that the new buildings are high-density low-income housing.


    1) “Wealth” is a relative term.

    2) Abuse does not become a moral act if the target of abuse is “wealthy.”

    3) An action can be perfectly legal and still be immoral.

  12. This is highly suspect given the fact that Davis Campos lives right near this project – and the fact that his pocket mouse Hillary Ronen is on the board of supervisors…. very suspect indeed that these two politically influential sneaks are so close to this project.

    I agree that a real investigation is in order here.

  13. Just so you know, that same gas line goes down Alabama street from Bernal Heights blvd down to Precita where it turns west. Anyway, the Bernal Hills Water Pipeline, a 42-inch water main, we replaced directly beneath it in the 2007-2009 time frame. If you lived here a long time you’ll remember that. I think it the gas pipeline could deal with all the vibration from that (which included a tunnel boring machine breaking ground near Ripley and Alabama right next to the gas line), I’m sure it can handle some residential construction.

    • No it doesn’t. It turns “East on Precita, and then turns North on York, then East on 25th, crosses the freeway, and then turns North on Rhode Island, up the hill to 20th, then down 20th to Pennsylvania where it heads South until 22nd, then East to Illinois Street where it meets up with the PG&E San Francisco Terminal at 23rd and Illinois.”

      • Thanks for clarifying, I indeed made a typo of saying West on Precita rather than East. The point remains about the water pipeline and tunnel boring alongside the gas pipeline down Alabama.

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