Despite environmental concerns, AT&T is pushing its plans to install 726 refrigerator-size, sound-emitting utility boxes on city sidewalks. The massive installation will proceed unless the Board votes to require an environmental impact report (EIR). The vote, scheduled for Tuesday, May 24, is an affront to a strong coalition of community groups that believe an EIR is needed on this project.

Allowing AT&T to do what it wants with our public sidewalks without examining the effects on our environment is just plain wrong.

Using its influence at City Hall, AT&T sent its lobbyists to secure a blanket “categorical exemption” from an EIR. This EIR exemption allows AT&T to disregard any environmental impacts caused by the giant utility boxes that will litter our sidewalks. San Francisco Beautiful (SFB) and Planning Association for the Richmond (PAR) challenged that determination and filed an appeal with the Board of Supervisors. A growing number of community groups support the appeal to require an EIR.

Normally required of any large scale project, an EIR would produce objective and transparent analysis to measure the impact upon our neighborhoods.

At the same time, it should ensure good faith efforts are undertaken to mitigate or eliminate environmental impacts. An EIR should buttress enforcement of existing regulations that prevent the needless privatization of our public sidewalks.

The Board of Supervisors first heard the appeal last month. During five hours of testimony, AT&T told the full Board of Supervisors reasons it was either unable or unwilling to comply with City regulations that require their boxes to be primarily placed underground on private property.

AT&T is attempting to sidestep the more costly alternatives required under regulations signed by Mayor Ed Lee in 2005, when he was Director of the Department of Public Works. Those regulations state that, if not placed underground, utility boxes are to be placed on private property. This private-sector solution requires genuine, thorough efforts to contract property owners who are willing to lease space for Internet and cable equipment. These existing regulations state that street-level fixtures are a last resort only if the other two approaches prove technologically or economically infeasible.

In writing the 2005 regulations (and after extensive collaboration with San Francisco Beautiful, AT&T and others), Lee determined “…surface-mounted facilities in the public right-of-way will impede travel on public streets, inconvenience property owners, create visual blight, or otherwise incommode the use of the public rights-of-way by the public.” So, as a matter of City policy, utility boxes are blight.

AT&T’s 726 proposed utility boxes are four-feet high, over four-feet wide, and over two feet deep. They would be flanked by vertical posts to prevent damage by vehicles. And they emit noise, the steady sound of an electric toothbrush, says AT&T.

Already intrusive, the utility boxes will be permanent graffiti magnets, obstacles to the visually impaired, and hazards to opening passenger car doors. Property values are jeopardized since a utility box certainly detracts from the “curb appeal” of one’s house or commercial property.

Contrary to its ad slogan, AT&T seemingly refuses to “rethink possible.” An EIR would force the opposite, and indentify current, practical and equitable means to vastly reduce utility box blight. At the same time the City’s high-tech infrastructure would expand – all in environmentally responsible ways that are possible today.

Milo Hanke is a member of San Francisco Beautiful, a civic organization that seeks to maintain the city’s natural environment and history.