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HOA dispute leaves new school in the dark

Without electrical hookup, Vargas Elementary's second-story classrooms are 'useless'

The playground and some classrooms at Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary, as seen during the day and at night. A dispute between PG&E and a Mountain View homeowners' association over an easement has left the new school without power. Vargas is running on a backup gas generator during daytime hours; however, the elevator in the two-story classroom building cannot be powered by the generator. Photo by Magali Gauthier

A dispute between PG&E and a Mountain View homeowners' association means the new Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School will open next week without power, causing an array of challenges that could last for months.

The fight between the utility company and the school's neighbor -- the California Station Homeowners Association -- has been going on for months, centered on PG&E's usage of a corner property for electrical utilities. The protracted dispute has forced the Mountain View Whisman School District to run Vargas on a backup gas generator, a costly compromise that has been a headache for staff planning to open for the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 19.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the elevator in the two-story classroom building cannot be powered by the generator. That means the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms on the second level are unusable for the foreseeable future, displacing teachers into pretty much all of the available space on the campus.

"The whole second floor is useless right now," said Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph.

The generator chugs along during the day, costing $35,000 per month, and is shut off at 6 p.m., meaning food can't be stored overnight in the on-site cafeteria and custodians have to wrap up all the janitorial work before the power goes out. Teachers preparing for the school year have been forced to rely on a backup plan for using the copy machine and accessing the internet, and the district has tapped into bond funds to pay someone to act as 24/7 fire lookout while the fire alarm is without power.

The problem emerged over the summer as construction crews at the school, located at 220 N. Whisman Road, prepared for a power hookup using property across the street -- an undeveloped wedge at the corner of Pacific Drive and Whisman Road. That property happens to be part of the nearby HOA, which has not agreed to PG&E's easement and has taken a firm stance to protect the interests of the homeowners against use of the corner property, Rudolph said.

Construction crews have already dug the trench leading up to the utility box and are awaiting permission from the HOA to proceed. District spokeswoman Shelly Hausman said PG&E already has an easement agreement to enter the property from the north side, and all it would take is a one-line addendum to the existing agreement between the two parties to hook up utility from the south side. To date, the HOA has declined.

With the next-best location also encroaching on the HOA's property, Rudolph said there's no good alternative, leaving the district scrambling to get the homeowners to acquiesce. School board members, district staff, the district's construction manager and PG&E have all tried over the last month to get power hooked up by the first day of school, but to no avail, Rudolph said.

"We're back on the phone with them saying these kids are coming from your community, and that we're putting in a traffic light," Rudolph said. "They still refuse to budge."

California Station HOA president Shirley Sutton told the Voice in an email that the HOA shares the district's concern that Vargas Elementary School won't have power when it opens next week, and that the HOA leadership continues to work toward an agreement. But she said it hasn't been easy working with PG&E, which notified the HOA representatives in late June to say that they had a role to play in getting power to the campus.

The area appears torn up, with caution tape and a trench covered in plywood, because PG&E contractors started hooking up power on the property without permission or an easement agreement, Sutton said. On top of that, she said HOA leaders were left in the dark on what exactly the utility company wanted to install at the corner until just last week. Taken altogether, she said it feels like PG&E expected to be given full control of the corner without objection.

"PG&E wants us to sign an easement agreement that, once signed, would give PG&E unlimited access to our property, to build whatever it wants at any future time, any time they say they need it, and without any accountability on their part," Sutton said.

The HOA has provided PG&E with multiple "draft" easement agreements aiming for compromise, Sutton said, including provisions that would require the company to provide notice of intended work and consult with the HOA's landscape contractor for restoration of damage to the property. The company has rejected these offers, Sutton said, claiming it would be difficult to comply with both requirements.

"Any easement agreement must protect the HOA homeowners and must allow the HOA to maintain and preserve its property, as it is legally obligated to do," Sutton said. "We remain committed to finding a fair solution to this, and we encourage PG&E to work with us in the spirit of community and compromise on finding that solution."

PG&E spokeswoman Megan McFarland told the Voice the company is still negotiating with the HOA on a possible agreement, but is simultaneously looking at "alternative" courses of action. This could include a significant redesign of the electric layout at the school with a power hookup located in a spot without restricted access.

"All the options are on the table," she said.

When asked about the specific sticking points between PG&E and the HOA, McFarland said the company likely won't be able to disclose details on the easement agreement due to privacy concerns.

In the meantime, three classrooms designated as "flex" space have all been converted into classrooms to make up for the loss of the second floor, displacing programs run by YMCA and the after-school program Right at School. The district's Response to Instruction (RTI) classes -- which provide remedial and enrichment activities for students -- will have to operate out of the library, Rudolph said. The school's field space was intended to be completed in October, but the power delays have pushed that out until January at the earliest.

Then there's the generator itself. On top of making sure it doesn't run out of gas, Rudolph said the district has to be mindful of how much noise and air pollution is coming from it during the day and how it affects the nearby apartments. The district sent out a notice apologizing for the generator, he said, but conceded that there is no other option.

It's still unclear where the school's newly created PTA will be able to meet at night -- limited use of the generator during the evening may be an option, Rudolph said.

Plans for Vargas Elementary School have been in the works for more than three years, prompted by a school board vote in 2015 to open a school somewhere in the Whisman and Slater area of Mountain View. The decision prompted a complete revamp of the district's attendance boundaries and special accommodations to fit construction of a new school in an already tight capital budget. After all that work, Rudolph said, the hope was that the school would have a smooth opening.

"We remain hopeful that the HOA will allow PG&E to have a simple easement," he said. "While I get their concerns ... I think the safety of the kids should really be at the forefront on everyone's mind."

If PG&E is allowed to move forward, Vargas Elementary could have power in as little as a week and a half if the electrical work is placed on an accelerated schedule. If not, the hookup work typically takes six weeks, Rudolph said.

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