Much like bad cell reception, new wireless facilities have been causing plenty of static in Palo Alto neighborhoods as of late.
The proposed Verizon cell tower that would replace a light pole at the Little League Ball Park on Middlefield Road, and that is now the subject of a lawsuit, is just the latest application to pit neighbors against one another. While proponents cite the need for improved coverage, critics complain about the new equipment's potential aesthetic and health impacts.
Similar concerns had come up in past proposals for a cell tower proposed at St. Albert the Great Church (a project that was ultimately scuttled) and AT&T's distributed antenna systems (DAS) in which cell equipment was installed on existing utility poles (a project that was approved). And as the new report from City Attorney Molly Stump notes, they aren't likely to go away any time soon.
"The tremendous growth in personal wireless services has created an increased demand for new wireless antennas and equipment," the report states. "It is expected that carriers will continue to roll out new facilities in Palo Alto to accommodate the rapidly growing need for increased capacity and speed."
With that in mind, the City Council on Monday passed a code revision that aims to make the approval process for wireless facilities both more predictable and consistent with federal law, which severely limits the city's power to ban cell equipment. Stump's report notes that under federal law known as the Spectrum Act, the city cannot make decisions that "have the effect of prohibiting the provision of wireless service" or regulate the placement, construction or modifications of wireless equipment based on concerns about radio-frequency emissions.
By an 8-0 vote, with Councilman Tom DuBois absent, the council created a new approval process with three different tiers, based on the type of wireless technology being proposed.
Each tier would have its own timeline for the city's approval and its own appeal process (or, in the case of the first tier, aimed at the least intrusive equipment, there is no appeal process).
The first tier would apply collocated equipment such as antennas added to an existing utility pole that don't "substantially change the physical dimensions of the existing wireless tower or base stations," according to the report.
The city has 60 days to make a decision on an application for such equipment. The permit requires approval from the planning director and the director's decision cannot be appealed. The 60-day time frame is consistent with the "shot clock" that federal law establishes for these facilities, granting them automatic approval if the city fails to meet its deadline.
The second tier would apply to collocated equipment that "substantially change the physical dimensions of the existing wireless tower or base station." The city would have 90 days to make a decision, which would be based on the equipment's compliance with the city's development standards and architectural guidelines for wireless equipment. The director's decision could be appealed.
The third tier would apply to new poles, roof-mounted equipment and other facilities deemed more significant than those in the other two tiers. Applications in this pool would give the city 150 days to make a decision and they would be based on a director's review and subject to an appeal. To approve these applications, the director would find that they are compliant with the city's development standards, architectural guidelines and permit conditions.
By making the requirements more stringent for new poles and other large equipment than for collocated equipment, the city hopes to encourage more carriers to favor the latter over the former.
While in the past, the city only required a "conditional use permit" for certain types of cell equipment, the new ordinance includes a "more robust review for all new facilities," according to the city attorney's office.
It would, among other things, "require that applicants provide simulations that will show the level of additional height that the facility would be entitled to under the Spectrum Act, so the community can see the potential for growth," Cara Silver, senior assistant city attorney, told the council Monday.
The new rules quickly won the council's endorsements, though several council members also raised concerns about the latest science concerning the health effects of radio-frequency emissions from the new equipment.
Vice Mayor Greg Schmid said the city has a "problem with disconnect" when it comes to cell applications.
"Every time we have a hearing about a new tower going in we are filled with people," Schmid said. And half says we want better service and the other said it is worried about health effects."
Mayor Karen Holman agreed and questioned whether the health studies conducted in other communities really anticipated the type of proliferation of cell equipment that Palo Alto has seen in recent years.
"While I agree, absolutely, that what should be true in one community should be true in another, the proliferation is not the same in one community as in another," Holman said.