Caltrain and Atherton can't reach a deal on electrification poles

Town agreed to pay $200,000 but not to indemnify Caltrain over changes

After Atherton City Council members said they couldn't accept some of Caltrain's terms, negotiations to get Caltrain to install shorter poles than it had planned as part of its project to electrify its train service have fallen apart.

Atherton council members, meeting in a special session on Tuesday morning, Feb. 27, said they couldn't accept Caltrain's conditions for changing its plans for poles along a 1,000-foot stretch of tracks running through the Lloyden Park neighborhood. They most objected to a clause calling on the town to indemnify Caltrain "from and against any claims, lawsuits, costs, or damages of any nature, including without limitation attorneys' fees, that may arise or be related to any decision, action, or work contemplated by or associated with this agreement."

Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Larson said the proposed clause is "incredibly broad" and applies to conduct "way beyond the control of the town."

"It's incredibly open ended," she said. "I really can't imagine in good faith signing something like that."

City Manager George Rodericks said that after the meeting, Caltrain officials refused to budge on the clause, so the negotiations ended.

In a statement, Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew said the project will continue as scheduled and designed.

The issue arose after a November council meeting at which the town was scheduled to approve an agreement allowing Caltrain to get the permits needed to start working in Atherton.

In response to a question, Caltrain representatives at the meeting said most of the poles placed in Atherton to carry electric wires would be in the center of the tracks and 30 to 35 feet tall. But in places where there's not room for center poles, some poles would be up to 45 feet tall.

That was news to town officials, who had written in a staff report that the poles would be 25 to 30 feet tall.

Residents of the Lloyden Park neighborhood then showed up in force at several council meetings, demanding the taller poles be replaced with shorter poles. They also sent letters to Caltrain asking for the changes.

The five 45-foot-tall poles in question cantilever over two sets of tracks. Residents asked instead for 10 35-foot-tall poles with crossbeams spanning only one set of tracks. The shorter poles would have been on both sides of the tracks, while the taller poles would all be on one side.

Council members supported the changes, but Caltrain pushed back. In a Feb. 6 letter Caltrain said it would only swap out the poles if the town agreed to a list of conditions by Feb. 28, including: paying $200,000, getting written consent of property owners whose trees will be affected by changed plans, and agreeing the town wouldn't support or be a part of any lawsuit filed against the electrification project.

On Feb. 21, council members rejected those conditions and asked a subcommittee of Mayor Cary Wiest and Councilman Rick DeGolia to negotiate with Caltrain. They scheduled a special meeting for Feb. 27 -- the day before Caltrain's deadline -- so the council could ratify the results of the negotiations.

Mr. Rodericks said, however, that Caltrain head Jim Hartnett said he felt it was "inappropriate to engage elected officials" in the negotiations. The two council members were instead included on all the emails exchanged about the issue.

On Feb. 26, Caltrain issued a new letter which took into consideration some of the town's concerns, but added the indemnification clause. Mr. Rodericks said Mr. Hartnett told him in an email that Caltrain's attorney had required the town approve the clause.

"We just cannot do that," said Councilman Bill Widmer. "Anybody in the town can launch a lawsuit against Caltrain and we wouldn't know anything about it. It really is an open-ended checkbook."

In fact, said Councilman Mike Lempres, a practicing attorney, the wording appeared to be broad enough that it would hold Atherton financially responsible even if someone from another community filed a lawsuit against Caltrain.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis said that while she would support a modified agreement with Caltrain, she had some qualms.

She expressed concern that the residents whose properties would be most impacted by putting poles on both sides of the tracks, those who live on Jennings Lane, were not at the meeting. Ms. Lewis said she thinks the taller poles will not stand out. By doubling the number of poles, "you just multiply the eyesore," she said.

Paying the $200,000 to Caltrain could also be seen as unfair by residents of other parts of town, she said. "I just don't want any backlash," she said.

Ms. Bartholomew said Caltrain "appreciated the creative attempts, by all involved, to reach a solution. After thoughtful consideration, the Town of Atherton decided not to proceed with their pole lowering request and we respect their decision."

And what about the agreement between Caltrain and the town to allow the electrification project to start?

"We have not yet executed the comprehensive agreement but I will be this week,"said Mr. Rodericks.


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23 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 1, 2018 at 12:09 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

If the Town had a collaborative relationship with Caltrain and had not been suing them for years then this desirable pole alignment would have been a simple matter of a handshake - no cash, no legal indemnification.

2 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 1, 2018 at 4:01 pm

There is absolutely no way of knowing that this issue would not have been contentious in a different atmosphere. To say so definitively simply exposes the person making such a statement as arrogant and self serving.

I applaud the Council's decision not to knuckle under to Caltrain's outrageous demands.

6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 1, 2018 at 4:08 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Here are two expert opinions on the matter"

1) "I believe Caltrain has not acted in good faith in dealing with Atherton," Ms. Lewis said. "There's no secret to the fact that Atherton has been a thorn in Caltrain's side for a long time because we've sued several times."

2) "I believe there is an opportunity to come to a solution here," Mr. DeGolia said.

"I think we need a good relationship with Caltrain," he said. "That means working with them.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 1, 2018 at 4:45 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

And, as of today Caltrain's deadline for the Town to agree to the conditions for the pole changes has expired.

So,Mike, how did that work out for the Town?

14 people like this
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2018 at 12:39 am

If any city ever needed to be entirely gobbled up by Eminent Domain and bulldozed over, it's Atherton. Completely incapable of doing anything that doesn't involve screwing over the rest of the Bay Area.

5 people like this
Posted by laughing
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 2, 2018 at 10:37 am

Atherton complains and sues over everything! The airplanes are too noisy, the train poles are too high, the fire department is taking too much money to provide top notch service...blah blah blah...getting old. Get over it don't always get everything you want just because you are rich!

2 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Mar 2, 2018 at 12:26 pm

Well, I think iti shows that Caltrain is tired of dedicating so much time in salaries and construction. I know that I'm annoyed that my tax dollars for Caltrain are all spent on a single city that hardly patronizes the system.

I wonder how other Atherton residents feel about their taxes subsidizing the $200K fee for the few owners next to the tracks. I know, they feel just like me.

4 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 2, 2018 at 2:04 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Looking at all the letters back and forth between the Town and Caltrans how much did this failed effort cost in terms of staff time and legal fees?

1 person likes this
Posted by Steve_J
a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2018 at 3:18 pm

Steve_J is a registered user.

Atherton spends thousands every year on law suits. The mist litigious town in the county. How many, if any do they actually collect on?? Both Cal Trans and Cal train I am sure are tired of the belly crying. But then, a rude of wakening will occur shortly do the special tax being declined by the voters!!

2 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 2, 2018 at 4:41 pm

I can actually empathize with the residents impacted in Atherton. What if AT&T said they were going to put a 45 foot cell tower just behind your back fence (or in front of your house if you prefer). Would you be happy with that? It could reduce the value of your house, it will likely be an eyesore, who knows there could be health related issues. Would you like that?

Atherton has low usage of Caltrain because, at least partially, they closed the one stop in Atherton.

5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 2, 2018 at 5:00 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Atherton does not allow/encourage cell towers and, as a result Atherton residents have lousy cell phone coverage - unless they live near a cell tower that is located in a neighboring community. I get better coverage in Kenya than I do in Atherton.

Caltrain closed the Atherton stop, except on weekend, because that stop had very low usage - not the reverse.

"Atherton is a weekend-only Caltrain station located in Atherton, California. It serves the 32 Saturday and 28 Sunday local Caltrains and does not serve weekday trains or weekend Baby Bullet trains. Shuttle service to Redwood City was previously provided; however, due to low ridership, it was discontinued on July 1, 2007."

5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 2, 2018 at 7:17 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

This is how Atherton forces neighboring communities to provide cell towers for Atherton residents:

"D. WTFs should be collocated with existing WTFs, if within one thousand five hundred feet of an existing visible WTF, unless the town determines that the particular design proposed would not create excessive visual clutter or would otherwise create harms the town cannot ameliorate."

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