It was clear at a Dec. 20 meeting of the Atherton City Council that Atherton and a number of its residents don't want Caltrain, as part of its electrification project, to install 45-foot-tall poles near the tracks that run through some town neighborhoods.
But a letter sent from a Caltrain official to the town before the meeting made it sound likely that Caltrain plans to install the poles anyway.
The debate is over Caltrain's plans to place 45-foot-high poles with cantilevered arms spanning two sets of tracks along a stretch of rail that runs through the Lloyden Park neighborhood. The arms support the wires needed for Caltrain's conversion to electric locomotives. The town and residents have asked Caltrain to replace five planned two-track poles with twice as many 30- to 35-foot-high, one-track poles.
About 40 residents of the Lloyden Park neighborhood crammed the room the council was meeting in on Dec. 20 to make clear their displeasure.
Sharon Hume, the president of Lloyden Park's homeowners' association, said the taller poles create an unacceptable visual impact that "would be impossible to camouflage."
"We do realize it was Caltrain's goal to minimize the impact to trees," she said. But Caltrain has said that replacing the taller double-track poles with twice as many 30-35 foot poles would mean eliminating only one additional tree, and the moderate pruning of 11 more. The tradeoff, Ms. Hume said, is "senseless to us."
"It's going to compromise the quaint character of our neighborhood," she said.
Other speakers protested the aesthetic and safety impacts of the taller, and heavier, poles, saying they would also reduce property values.
Michael Burns, who is Caltrain's planning and modernization interim chief officer, sent a letter to the City Council on Dec. 19. He said the proposed pole height and placement "reflects the considered and reasonable judgment" of the project's design team.
The design, he said, was most influenced by requests from the town and Atherton residents "to minimize the impact on and preserve as much as possible the trees in the area that shield the right of way from adjacent landowners."
"If the design were to be changed in this area to Single Track Cantilever poles, then others in Atherton would be more affected by the reduced tree coverage. It is not wise or prudent to negotiate unnecessary changes that would potentially have ripple effects on other landowners in Town or the design in other cities," Mr. Burns wrote. "Consideration of costs and time also weigh against changing the design."
Mr. Burns' letter ends by saying Caltrain "will continue to work with the Town and its residents to minimize the aesthetic impacts of the poles by implementing measures ... including using colors that are suitable for a residential neighborhood and using pole shapes that minimize impacts."
Zhenlin Guan, a deputy project director for Caltrain, said the town would be given three colors to choose from and the choice of square or round poles.
Town officials do have some bargaining power in the dispute, however. Atherton has not approved an agreement allowing Caltrain to get the permits needed to start working in Atherton. The agreement also repays the town for any costs it incurs related to the project, starting off with a $25,000 deposit. The agreement was on the council's November consent calendar, in which routine items are approved in a batch with no, or very little, discussion.
Councilman Rick DeGolia pulled the item from the consent calendar to clarify that the staff report correctly stated that most of the Caltrain poles would be placed in the center of the tracks, where fewer trees would need to be cut, and that poles would be 25 to 30 feet tall.
But Caltrain representatives at the meeting said that while most poles will be in the center of the tracks and 30- to 35-feet tall, in places where there's not room for center poles, some poles would be up to 45-feet tall.
The taller poles "were entirely new information to us," said Mr. DeGolia. Now, he said, "it's really obvious to me that the community has an opinion about it."
"I'd like to go forward with a collaborative effort," with Caltrain, he said. "We can't eliminate the tracks and they can't eliminate the town," he said. They need to work together, and not against each other, he said.
But Councilman Mike Lempres said he was a little less sanguine. "We have a clear message to deliver," to Caltrain said Mr. Lempres. "The response we've gotten from you is you'll consider it," he said. "I'd like a little more than the consideration."
Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis said Caltrain's insistence on not changing the pole design made no sense to her. With either type of poles, "the trains are going to run," she said. "We need some more reassurance that this community is going to be heard," she said.
Atherton has in the past had a contentious relationship with Caltrain, suing it several times over the electrification project. Mr. Burns' letter mentions the lawsuit the town filed over Caltrain's environmental review, saying that successfully fighting the lawsuit cost Caltrain "$250,000 in project funds."
Paul Jones, a member of the town's Rail Committee, which earlier this month unanimously voted to suggest Caltrain put in the shorter poles, said he thinks that history explains why Caltrain won't change the pole design.
"It is my personal belief that Caltrain is trying to punish Atherton for their past activities," Mr. Jones said.