"I don't want to be sitting here three years from now explaining why we said no to more water when the whole hill burns down," council member Dick Brown said as he cast one of six votes in favor of the project, despite neighborhood protest.
Cal Water wants to install a new water tank to replace two corroding 24-foot-tall tanks on a small property tucked between two homes in the Skywood Acres neighborhood, just below Skyline Boulevard.
Council member Ned Fluet, who represents the neighborhood, cast the only vote against the project. "We should be careful about being railroaded into projects we know nothing about just because someone yelled 'fire,'" Fluet said.
A report on the issue says a 30-foot-tall tank will hold approximately 80,000 more gallons of water than the existing tanks hold, while the 35-foot-tall tank the water company had requested would have held close to 125,000 gallons of additional water than the existing tanks.
In addition to the fact that the current tanks are corroding and their roofs could fail and allow the water they hold to be contaminated, the company is trying to vastly increase the amount of water it can store to serve its customers in the Skyline area both in an emergency and for daily use, officials said.
Erin McCauley, a former director of the Bear Gulch Water District and Cal Water's interim director of capital delivery, said the company moves water to the Skyline area via a single pump located near Interstate 280. The water line up to Skyline crosses the San Andreas fault. "We're going to be out of water for a significant period of time" if the line or pump fails, she said.
Cal Water officials said they have been asking to replace the two 60,000-gallon water tanks since Cal Water took ownership of them after purchasing the Skyline County Water District in 2009, but the California Public Utilities Commission didn't give them permission to do so until 2015. Since then they've been working on the project, McCauley said.
But two neighbors, who each separately hired an attorney and filed an appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of the project, argued that the proposed tank needs more study.
Appellant Jess Lee, who lives with his family on one side of the water company's property, said the proposal is "a massive tank on a tiny, tiny lot."
"My daughter's bedroom is less than 50 feet away downhill from this water tank," Lee said. "Only after a detailed review can we figure out how to move forward."
Appellant Bill Stronck, who lives on the other side of the Cal Water property, said he doesn't disagree there is a need for more water to be stored in the Skyline ridge area. "Cal Water does have a lot of options, a ton of options," he said. More study needs to be done to find the right spot for that water storage, he said.
At the recommendation of town planners, the Planning Commission had ruled that the project should be exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (better known as CEQA), reasoning that the water company's need to provide water to residences and to fight fires qualifies the project as an emergency, exempt from CEQA study.
The neighbors, however, said the project isn't an emergency because it is taking so long to complete and that there is no imminent danger.
The council's vote affirmed the Planning Commission decision to skip environmental review, and also approved a variance Cal Water needed to allow the new tank to have less than the required setbacks from the property lines of the 6,757-square-foot parcel. The approved project also includes a new driveway with concrete curbs to direct water flow in the event of a tank failure, new drainage for the property and equipment to remotely monitor the tank.
CalWater had originally asked for a 48-foot-tall tank, but changed its plans to a 35-foot-tall tank after neighbors protested.
The utility says it has also for several years been negotiating with the MidPeninsula Regional Open Space District to place two 400,000-gallon water storage tanks on the district's Skegg's Point property. Currently, however, the tank in the Skywood Acres neighborhood provides water for 39 percent of Cal Water customers in the Skyline area, those to the south and east of Skywood Acres, the water company said.
A study by the utility found it should be storing nearly 2 million gallons of water in the Skyline area, but is currently storing only about a quarter of that amount.
"The community need outweighs the need of the individuals," council member Brian Dombkowski said in approving the modified plans.
The 30-foot height, Mayor Daniel Yost said, "seems right to me; it matches the neighborhood." But he noted that the additional water capacity is needed. His parents, he added, had fled the recent fires in Santa Rosa just ahead of the flames.
What will happen next is not completely clear. Lee's attorney, Gregory Klingsporn of Jorgenson, Siegel, McClure & Flegel LLP in Menlo Park, said that while his client is happy that the height of the tank has been lowered, Lee is still troubled by the lack of environmental study of the project and could take their objections to court.
"We're still evaluating what our next step will be," Klingsporn said.
Cal Water officials said they are still deciding on how to proceed with the project