Public Works Commission votes to agendize Civic Center Way tower

Photo by Julie Ellerton.

After nearly two months, the Public Works Commission met virtually on May 25 to receive updates on capital improvement projects and the disaster recovery project status report from city directors. The last virtual meeting was on March 23. Due to an ongoing concern of the unpermitted 75-foot replacement tower at the Santa Monica College, the commission decided to add telecommunications projects to review citywide.  

The items on the agenda were the Public Works Commission to review the assignments from the fiscal year 2021-2022 completed assignments, add new topics for consideration, and recommend that the City Council approve the revised task list for assignments in FY 2022-2023.

The first lengthy item discussed but was not on the agenda, was public comment and speaker Ryan Embree commented on the 75-foot replacement tower at the new Santa Monica College campus, saying the project was never brought to the public’s attention.

The Emergency Communications Facilities tower was erected at the Santa Monica College Campus and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Substation in the Civic Center last month. Since the tower is adjacent to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department helipad, it was built in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines, which require lights and colors. 

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Photo by Julie Ellerton/TMT.

In response to complaints from community members, staff prepared a memorandum to inform the City Council and the community about the project’s chronology and permits. 

“City staff notified the Project Manager that, except for necessary safety-related work, no further work can be done on the tower, including installation of antennas, until the Conditional Use Permit is obtained, as required by Condition No. 17 of Planning Commission Resolution No. 16-30,” the website states

Assistant Planning Director Adrian Fernandez responded to the public comment with what the city has already released on the department website and said the tower is painted orange and white to be visible to pilots and helicopters. 

“As an emergency communications facility, it doesn’t require a conditional use and we have already been in communication with The Santa Monica College people and also the county and they are aware that a conditional use permit application will be submitted to authorize the use,” Fernandez said. “At that time, we hope to have a resolution on both the color and overall height of the facility.” 

Commissioner Scott Dittrich asked why this project didn’t come before the Planning Commission and Fernandez said the individual wireless communications facilities are not under the review of the commission. 

“The reason those didn’t come to this commission is because it was a sense of urgency,” Fernandez said. “One of those updates was adopted through an emergency ordinance by the City Council.” 

Dittrich asked if the commission is able to vote to return the ordinance to discuss further, since it was approved by City Council without commission approval or public awareness. 

City staff said they can return the item for further discussion.

For staff updates, Public Works Superintendent Travis Hart said the maintenance crews are about 75 percent done with wheat abatement clearance.

“They’re currently wrapping up the Carbon Canyon area [and] after that they’ll be running through Rambla Vista, Rambla Pacifico and over to Big Rock that will complete the wheat abatement for this year,” Hart said. “We’re also working on various storm drains throughout the city for city-owned drains and we will have our holiday crew working this weekend helping out with trash along the normal busy streets of Point Dume and Broad Beach, the usual places.”

Brush clearance is an annual obligation for all property owners in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones, which includes the entire City of Malibu. These measures help create the “defensible space” that firefighters need to effectively protect life, property and the environment and to protect their own safety. Properties with good defensible space may require no or minimal intervention during a wildfire and stand the best chance of survival.

Strong winds can send millions of burning embers flying out more than a mile ahead of a firefront and are the leading cause of homes catching fire and burning down during wind-driven wildfires like the Woolsey fire. Brush clearance and creating defensible space involves much more than just cutting dead and dry grass at the beginning of summer. It should be an ongoing, year-round process. The city has conducted more than 200 assessments since the program was launched in 2019.

Public Works directors also addressed the skate park project but the new design is still under review. Staff said the new designs will come back to the commission to review.

The City Council approved the final conceptual design for the temporary skate park on Feb. 24, 2020, and it opened on July 3, 2020. The permanent skate park is being designed and built on the east portion of the property.

Assistant Public Works Director Troy Spayd provided a staff report and said the storm drain master plan was extended but will come forward to the commission for review and recommendations. 

The commission discussed the antenna tower again towards the end of the meeting and Dittrich said although they might not have jurisdiction to speak on the item, they should be able to review projects like this.

“We’ve got these major projects that are influencing what’s going on here at Public Works; our roads, for example, might influence them,” Dittrich said. “Ryan [Embree] brought up the point of the fall zone of this tower, that is within our purview so a major project like this, I believe should have as much public comment and review as possible.”

Public Works Chair Wade Major said he’s in resolution to look for clarity than what commission has jurisdiction over this issue.

“It seems to me that this project that were all concerned about [has] threaded a needle somewhere and it got away from planning and it got away from safety and it got away from public works, and we’re now trying to figure out so that it doesn’t get away again,” Major said. who’s going to have jurisdiction over it? I agree somebody ought to, I just want to make sure that we’re keeping with city code over where that lies.”

“Any major project that comes within the city, whether it’s a public or private building project, should go to the Public Works and/or Planning Commission and let the council pass this over,” Dittrich said. 

Major asked how the antenna slipped through the Planning Commission to which Spayd said that the property is private.

“This is not a public works item,” Spayd said. “This is under the purview of planning.”

Drummond motioned to add to the assignments for fiscal year 2022-2023 review, telecommunications projects citywide that are macro sites cdp and not small cell eligible for quick shot cloud projects.

Commissioner Lance Simmens called the motion request a “bureaucratic maze”; however, Dittrich and Drummond said the project has been a major concern and shouldn’t be delayed. 

After the first motion was withdrawn, Drummond motioned to review telecommunications projects citywide rather than being specific to the Santa Monica College antenna.

The motion passed 3-1 with Major abstaining.

Simmens requested to add an assignment to the fiscal year 2022-2023 to work with Caltrans on a large redesign of the Pacific Coast Highway over a long period. The motion passed.

The meeting adjourned in memory of the nineteen children and two adults killed during a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, May 24. 

The next Public Works Commission meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, June 22. Visit