Seeking to strike a balance between federal requirements and resident concerns, Palo Alto approved on Monday night new rules for reviewing the flurry of applications that the city has been receiving from telecommunication companies seeking to install antennas on local streetlights and utility poles.
By a 6-0 vote, with Councilman Greg Tanaka absent, the council adopted a set of "objective standards" for wireless communication facilities, including a menu of preferred design alternatives for radio equipment and antennas. And in a nod to the dozens of residents who have raised alarms about the proliferation of cellular facilities on their blocks, the council launched a new effort to further restrict where such technology can be installed and to explore "minimum distance" requirements for wireless equipment in relation to local schools and homes.
With Councilman Tom DuBois taking the lead, the council instructed staff to return with a list of preferred locations and minimum-distance requirements, which will consider zoning designations (a preference for commercial and industrial zones over residential ones), local context (choosing heavily traveled arterial streets over neighborhood blocks) and types of installation. DuBois' motion, which the council pared down before ultimately endorsing, also called for staff to clearly define the conditions under which an applicant can deem conformity with the city's requirement "infeasible" and request exceptions.
The council directed staff to return within a year with the new requirements, which other cities have also been exploring in recent months in response to an increasing number of wireless facility applications. Palo Alto has received three applications for the facilities this year with a total of 24 nodes, Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the council Monday night. It expects applications for up to an additional 100 nodes, he said.
For the council, the direction came with a sense of urgency. The Federal Communications Commission issued an order last September requiring cities to adopt "objective" criteria for reviewing wireless communication facilities applications and to make a decision on "small wireless facilities" proposals within 60 to 90 days. While the FCC ruling is facing challenges both in courts and on Capitol Hill, where U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo authored a bill to repeal it, it remains the law of the land. And it gave cities until Monday to come up with new regulations, which the city must be able to apply "without exercise of personal judgment."
Staff confirmed that after Monday, the city will no longer have the power to deny wireless applications based on the city's existing set of aesthetic findings, which apply to all types of new developments.
"If we don't do it tonight, tomorrow it's the wild, wild west," Mayor Eric Filseth said, citing the importance of passing the new standards and updating the city's rules without delay.
His colleagues agreed and voted 6-0 to approve the criteria, which includes the city's four preferred designs: underground vaults; cylindrical pole-mounted "shrouds"; boxy "sunshields" for radio equipment attached to the side of poles; and equipment that can hide behind existing street signs. They also approved an ordinance updating existing laws on wireless communication facilities to account for recent changes in federal laws.
The council's vote followed an extensive debate over how far the council should go in regulating wireless communication facilities. DuBois and Councilwoman Lydia Kou both favored more regulation, with Kou advocating for regular inspections of wireless equipment and DuBois suggesting that the city create objective standards for underground vaults, identify private properties that could be suitable hosts for wireless facilities, explore city buildings that could be suitable locations for the new technology and add clauses pertaining to maintenance and repairs of wireless equipment.
While the council ultimately did not move ahead with these proposals, it supported DuBois' suggestion that the city considers minimum-distance requirements, as requested by many of the roughly two dozen residents who addressed the council on the topic.
"For me, the main issue is really aesthetics citywide but particularly when near homes and schools," DuBois said. "We want to make sure it doesn't impact the public right-of-way."
Kou urged her colleagues to "maintain control of what can and cannot happen in our town." Under her urging, the council voted 5-1, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss dissenting, to direct staff to explore best practices for inspecting wireless facilities for compliance with noise rules and other laws.
Almost every resident that spoke urged more regulations, including a role for the city's Architectural Review Board in evaluating all wireless facility applications. The new rules split applications into three tiers and gives the planning director the sole authority for approving the least intrusive projects (classified as "Tier 1"). For Tier 2 and Tier 3 equipment, the planning director has the option of referring the application to the Architectural Review Board, though he is under no obligation to accept the board's recommendation.
Jeanne Fleming, whose grassroots group United Neighbors unsuccessfully appealed an application from Verizon earlier this year, was one of many residents who stressed the need to have a public review process for wireless applications.
"United Neighbors is firmly in favor of improved cell service," Fleming said. "What we're asking you to do tonight is to make sure that upgrading our wireless infrastructure is done responsibly, safely and in a way that doesn't compromise the quality of life in our neighborhoods.
"The first step is to strengthen, not weaken, our wireless ordinance."
Dozens of residents had emailed the council in recent weeks voicing similar sentiments. Parris Schmidt, a Barron Park resident, wrote to the council that "residents of Palo Alto do not want hundreds of pounds of unsightly, noisy, unsafe equipment on utility poles right next to our homes or our schools."
"This issue directly impacts our neighborhoods, and therefore, residents must retain their voice in these decisions through the local public hearing process," Schmidt wrote.
Representatives from telecom companies also took issue with the new rules and argued — both in person and in written correspondence — that the city's proposed rules are too restrictive.
Jeffrey Slade, assistant vice president and senior legal counsel at AT&T, submitted a letter calling for the council to strike from the ordinance all requirements for public notice and community meetings, calling them "burdensome," "unreasonable" and problematic when it comes to meeting the timelines for application reviews.
Slade also took issue with the city's design guidelines, including its preference for underground vaults for radio equipment.
"AT&T has the right to place facilities in the public rights-of-way, and this prohibition may violate that right," Slade wrote. "In addition, this prohibition is unlawful to the extent it is more burdensome than restrictions imposed on other infrastructure deployments."
DuBois had initially proposed that staff return with the new criteria for preferred locations within six months, though Vice Mayor Adrian Fine successfully lobbied his colleagues to expand the timeline to a year. Fine's proposal for the time extension passed by a 4-2 vote, with DuBois and Kou dissenting.