Just watch the reaction when AT&T or Verizon attempt to install a cell phone tower in a residential neighborhood. Rather than welcoming improved service with open arms, opponents often claim the new towers are not needed and if allowed to sprout will cause a precipitous decline in property values.
Resident Bill Moore told AT&T officials at a recent hearing about installing small antennas on existing utility poles in Professorville that he, personally, "will fight this ugly, ridiculous-looking tower like crazy."
And a recent Verizon plan to build a 65-foot antenna at the Middlefield Road Little League field is already facing a storm of criticism from parents, whose flyer beseeches residents to "help oppose this intrusion where our children live and play! If not for you, then do it for your friends and neighbors — for your community."
Given the explosion of bandwidth-gobbling technology, it is no surprise that providers are scrambling now to line up antennas to carry their signals into every nook and cranny of our community. And just as predictable is the pushback from residents who say they do not buy into the need to pepper every block with fake trees or other camouflage that hides an emitter of what they believe is dangerous radiation. In some cases, when churches or institutions like Little League fields are in play, leaders of the organizations are often swayed by the prospect of receiving a fat monthly rent check from AT&T, Verizon or another provider.
In more traditional zoning battles, residents can demand a public hearing or cite a code violation when they believe an intrusive building or technology is invading their neighborhood.
But in the case of cell phone towers, the city's regulations are anemic, at least in part due to the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which prohibits regulating wireless-communications facilities based on radiation emissions, often the most feared impact raised by opponents, especially parents.
Curtis Williams, director of planning and community development, told the Weekly last December that if a proposed site is of concern to neighbors, the city usually requires companies to submit extensive information about the radius of a tower's coverage and an evaluation of alternative sites.
But the city's policy "encourages" rather than "requires" that towers be installed on non-residential property, be located with other towers or wireless installations and be screened by pine-tree towers or similar architectural devices.
In recent months, vigorous discussions have brought out several possible solutions to this ongoing battle that sooner or later will have to be resolved.
In the debate over AT&T's application for a tower at St. Albert the Great Church, opponents urged the city to press for an audit of the company's nearby wireless facilities and show why it could not co-locate antennas on its own towers or on those owned by other companies in the area. Such information is readily available at www.antennasearch.com, which shows that hundreds of towers and a similar number of smaller antennas already are installed throughout Palo Alto.
With such information in hand, the city could decide where new towers are actually needed to provide more coverage, rather than where companies are simply trying to gain a competitive advantage.
In addition to being able to actively evaluate the need for new antennas, Palo Alto should follow the lead of the City of Richmond in the East Bay, which halted applications for new wireless-communications facilities until an advisory group developed a new policy that residents and industry members could endorse.
In 2009, Richmond passed a new ordinance establishing standards for towers and prioritized zones that require "maximum achievable setbacks" from schools, child-care facilities, residences, hospitals and mixed-use areas."
A Richmond planning official told the Weekly that the law "puts the onerous proof on the carrier" to show that a location within a residential area is the only alternative and the best site.
This approach could work just as well in Palo Alto.
Rather than forcing residents and wireless carriers to put up with needlessly confrontational hearings, the city should move soon to write a new ordinance that would not violate federal telecommunications regulations but simply create a framework for industry and the public to cooperatively decide where new towers are needed.
The Richmond ordinance, which was developed after reviewing similar measures in the East Bay cities of Berkeley, Albany and Orinda, is proof that cities can stop the often contentious, and needless, debates about cell-phone towers.