Palo Alto residents call for more robust and transparent approval process for small cell antennas
March 30, 2019 – by Tina Chow
Palo Altans are up in arms over the installation of cell antennas on utility poles in front of homes and schools throughout the city. Residents have many concerns about these “small cell towers” including aesthetics, noise, health effects, property value, and fire risk, among others. Furthering resident concerns, city staff are taking actions to codify controversial federal rules that streamline the cell tower approval process, limit public input, and hence reduce transparency. Other cities are doing more for their residents, and Palo Altans should demand nothing less. Speak up now before City Council takes action on April 15, 2019!
New FCC rules have opened the floodgates
A new order from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is enabling a flood of small cell towers by forcing rapid approval of applications. This FCC 18-133 ruling went into effect on Jan 14, 2019 and shortens the “shot clock” for application review to 60 days. It also requires that aesthetic standards be objective, non-discriminatory, and published in advance.
Palo Alto has already received over 150 applications for such “small wireless facilities.” With 4 major carriers and no requirement for consolidated or shared equipment siting, there could be hundreds more.
Wireless carriers say they are building small cell networks to enable transition to 5G (5th generation) service, which will operate at much higher frequencies and faster speeds to support gaming, self-driving cars, and the Internet of Things. The FCC severely restricts the fees that cities can charge for these smaller cells. A macro cell tower often earns a city roughly $30,000/year and the wireless provider assumes liability. In contrast, rental fees for small cells on utility poles are limited to about $270/year and the city has liability, creating additional financial advantages for carriers to create small cell networks that intrude further into neighborhoods.
Residents argue that these small cell towers are unsightly and unnecessary, and that they put the safety and welfare of our community at risk. Radio-frequency radiation has been shown to create adverse biological and health effects including cancer. In 2018, the National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health concluded that long-term exposure to radio-frequency radiation from 3G and 4G cellular emissions causes brain and heart cancer in rats (Lin et al. 2018). This definitive and large-scale government study was replicated by the Ramazzini Institute, which used even lower radiation exposure levels. Dr. Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, states that “many hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have found evidence of biologic and health effects from low level exposures to cell phone radiation. Hence, the FCC’s exposure guidelines must be re-assessed as they are likely inadequate to protect human health.”
Putting so many cell towers in such close proximity to resident homes (~20 feet) and schools means human exposures and hence adverse health effects will increase, especially for more vulnerable children and those with electro-sensitivity.
In addition, power lines and overburdened utility poles are implicated in the recent extreme wildfire events in California. Small cell towers would add hundreds of pounds of equipment hanging off already aging utility and light poles. Another concern is that property values have been shown to go down by 20 percent in some areas with new towers.
Proposed ordinance would reduce transparency and fail to mitigate key resident concerns
City staff in Palo Alto now want to update the wireless ordinance to streamline the approval process by creating a ‘menu’ of pre-approved designs and removing valuable public input from the process. This ‘menu’ would serve as an objective standard that would take the place of the City’s architectural review findings. Currently, the Architectural Review Board (ARB) evaluates the aesthetics of the proposed cell towers to make the required findings and make a recommendation to the Director of Planning.
With the plan to use a menu of options, decisions would be made solely by the Director of Planning. This means that in the future there would be no public hearing, public record, transparency, or meaningful public participation at all except through formal appeal of a decision to City Council – which is costly for residents and arguably more time consuming than an ARB hearing.
Staff claim that these changes are necessary under the FCC ruling which requires objective standards to be published by April 15, 2019. Remarkably, April 15 is also the date on which City Council is scheduled to consider these changes – with staff pressuring them to decide in favor or else lose the ability to reject applications until alternate standards are approved.
However the staff-proposed ‘menu’ is inadequate to address community objections. Other objective standards, such as requirements for undergrounding, setbacks from homes, and size of equipment, would all go further to mitigate many resident concerns. There is also no reason why we could not maintain the ARB public hearings to consider resident input and preserve our transparent process.
Other cities and lawsuits against the FCC
Other cities have interpreted the FCC ruling completely differently than Palo Alto city staff. In fact, the FCC order is currently being challenged by lawsuits brought forward by dozens of cities. These include such diverse cities as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Portland, Denver, San Jose, Hillsborough, Burlingame, Monterey and more. In addition, our own Congresswoman Anna Eshoo has introduced a bill to the U.S. House to overturn the FCC order.
Within this complicated legal context, dozens of other cities are taking action to protect resident interests and prevent small cell tower installations in such close proximity to homes and schools. For example:
- Petaluma, CA now requiresundergrounding of ancillary equipment, 1500 ft minimum spacing of the small cells, and setbacks from residences.
- Fairfax, CA passed an urgency ordinance putting a pause on cell tower installations and requiring setbacks from residences, schools, etc., and the city is pursuing a high-speed fiber-optic network.
- Mill Valley, CA adopted an urgency ordinance to prohibit cell towers in residential zones, strengthen permitting requirements, set minimum distances and setbacks etc.
- Ripon, CA also has a new ordinance that requires setbacks from schools and residences. Ripon, by the way, is having a cell tower removed from a school site after a cancer cluster (with at least 3 teachers and 4 kids affected).
- Marin County is updating its ordinance, joined the lawsuit against the FCC and held a public meeting to discuss 5G in Marin County.
What can we do?
Residents must speak up now to preserve the health and safety of our community in Palo Alto. On April 15, City Council will vote on the Staff-proposed wireless ordinance changes, which would reduce public input and transparency while doing nothing to address public concerns.
Contact City Council now (City.Council@cityofpaloalto.org) and attend the City Council meeting (April 15, evening) to tell them we need:
- A more robust set of objective standards that would include parameters such as setbacks from homes and schools, requirements for undergrounding, size of equipment, etc., informed by an inclusive public process.
- A short term resident task force to inform standards that better reflect community concerns and values, with quick turn around of a resolution to adopt them.
- Continued ARB review of applications to ensure public scrutiny and comment on proper application of the standards.
Tina Chow lives in Barron Park and is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley.