Council reluctantly approves new standards for wireless equipment installations

With their backs against the wall, on April 15 City Council adopted new, objective standards for approving wireless equipment installations in the public right of way. Under new Federal Communications Commission regulations, the city would have no authority to reject new applications unless objective standards were in place by that date. The new ordinance creates a menu of acceptable installation designs including 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. 

Despite approval of the controversial new standards, the council heeded the pleas of dozens of residents seeking tighter controls. On a motion from Councilmember DuBois, they voted unanimously to direct staff to return within a year with an updated ordinance that considers minimum setbacks from homes and schools, minimum distances between cell antennas, and location preferences such as commercial vs. residential zones, arterial vs. neighborhood streets.

GUEST COMMENTARY

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. 

Resident Concerns

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.


Senate Bill 50 could end single-family zoning citywide

“Jobs-rich” designation extends impacts well beyond transit zones in Palo Alto

March 3, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

First Baptist Church
First Baptist Church N. California Avenue. The site is within 1/4 mile of the California Avenue Caltrain station, making it eligible for multifamily development up to 55 feet tall, with a maximum FAR of 3.25. This could result in a development with up to approximately 150 studio or one-bedroom units on the 0.85 acre site.

Since last year’s defeat of Senate Bill 827, State Senator Scott Weiner has returned to try his hand again at replacing local zoning control with one-size-fits-all, state mandated housing standards. SB-827 sought to encourage bigger, denser housing  projects near transit. This year’s version, Senate Bill 50, extends state mandates beyond transit corridors to include all residentially zoned parcels in “Jobs-Rich” areas. Whether a community is jobs-rich would be determined by proximity to jobs, area median income and public school quality. By those indicators, it seems inevitable that SB-50 impacts would reach all of Palo Alto.

SB-50 creates a tiered system of incentives designed to make dense housing projects more appealing to developers by requiring cities to waive or adjust local zoning rules regarding such things as density, parking, height and the size of a building relative to the size of the lot (known as Floor Area Ratio). Eligible projects also must be granted up to three additional density bonuses of their choosing (e.g., site coverage, setback, or daylight plane adjustments, even more height or FAR, etc.). Different sets of incentives apply based on the category of a project’s location:

  • In a Jobs-rich area or within ¼ mile of a high quality bus corridor.
  • Within ½ mile of a train station.
  • Within ¼ mile of a train station.

Within a ¼ mile of a train station, for example, dense housing projects could be up to 55 feet high (rising to 75 feet with density bonuses), with building floor area of 3.25 times the size of the lot, and no on-site parking.

To help make SB-50 easier for people to understand, we partnered with the Embarcadero Institute, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, to commission a professional analysis and visual renderings of what SB-50 could mean, on-the-ground, for Palo Alto. The report explains SB-50’s system of tiered development incentives and maps out where each tier would apply in the city.

Click here to view the full report.

The report also calculates the theoretical maximum housing units that could be produced through SB-50 redevelopment, based on both SB50 incentives and underlying zoning. Those calculations take the very conservative approach of counting only transit rich areas (in the unlikely event that Palo Alto is not ultimately deemed jobs-rich) and not counting extra units that could be achieved through additional density bonuses that may be chosen by developers. Still the theoretical maximum comes to 58,000 units, more than three times the entire city’s current housing stock. Adding in the much larger jobs-rich area would yield a much higher number.

Projections regarding increased parking congestion due to the reduction or elimination of on-site parking requirements and new population growth were beyond the scope of the study. However it does note that car registrations per capita in Palo Alto have climbed by 14 percent in the last five years, reflecting car ownership trends across the Bay Area.

Max Units by District

Finally, to show the look and feel of increased building density and intensity allowed under SB-50, the report includes before and after images at five Palo Alto locations showing possible projects if developers take advantage of the state mandated up-zoning. Again, a conservative approach was taken to exclude discretionary density bonuses, demonstrating only what could be built under the bill’s explicit provisions regarding elimination of unit density limits, increased height limits, and higher Floor Area Ratios (floor area relative to the size of the lot). 

Addison Ave - BEFORE
Addison Avenue – BEFORE. Currently developed as single-family homes.
Addison Ave - AFTER
Addison Avenue – AFTER. This site is within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop. Development could be 45 feet tall with a maximum FAR of 2.5. This would allow a small apartment building to be built with up to 10 units (about a 16,000 square foot building), or larger apartments to be built if multiple lots were replatted.

Without local controls, developers decide

Surely some will cheer the potential housing growth under SB-50 and welcome a new look and feel for the city. Others will hate it. But don’t be fooled into thinking that “this could never happen in Palo Alto.” With the elimination of local controls under SB-50, the market-driven choices of individual developers and their “reasonable judgment” about zoning requirements will drive the outcome.

Recent studies have shown that up-zoning to increase density significantly increases land values, creating a substantial market incentive to buy up property for redevelopment. Once a site is acquired, developers will be entitled to take advantage of SB-50’s development incentives, whether the city or its voters like it or not. 

The only way the city could stop or constrain an eligible project is through a showing of significant adverse effect on public safety, the physical environment, or properties on the historic registry. In addition, thanks to changes to the state Housing Accountability Act enacted in 2017 (AB-678, SB-167, and AB-1515), courts must defer to the reasonable judgment of the developer rather than a local government’s planning department as to consistency with zoning requirements – without regard for the weight of evidence.

SB-50 is a no-turning-back proposition. Bigger and denser housing projects with little or no on-site parking could result in a radical shift, city-wide, from today’s detached-house development pattern to a townhouse and apartment development pattern. Over time, that may or may not lead to greater affordability or reduced car ownership. Either way, under SB-50’s mandates, it will be up to developers, not the city, to determine whether SB-50’s vision comes to fruition.

Click here to view full report

SB-50 has been referred to the Senate Housing Committee, chaired by State Senator Scott Weiner, and the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, chaired by State Senator Mike McGuire. Whether it will get amended and/or approved in committee and move forward to passage is still an open question. Let your local representatives know what you think about the bill: 

There will be a joint hearing of the Senate Housing and Governance and Finance Committees on March 5, at 1:30 pm focused on: “Addressing California’s Housing Shortage: How Can We Create Environments to Facilitate Housing Development?” Livestream video will be available here. Or you can view it in the media archive after the fact.

Assemblymember Berman will hold a public Open House on March 7, from 4  to 6 pm at his District Office, 5050 El Camino Real, Suite 117, Los Altos.

State Senator Hill will be meeting with mayors and city managers from across the district to discuss housing on March 15. 

The CASA Compact underlying SB-50

Touted as balanced compromise, Compact faces criticism from cities and offers no assurance of cohesive legislation

March 2, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

SB-50 is perhaps the most prominent in a slew of proposed state legislation to implement an ambitious regional housing plan known as the CASA Compact. The Compact was designed as an interdependent package to address all three legs of the housing stool: production, preservation, and renter protection. Supporters describe the Compact as a necessary, if imperfect, compromise and they hope that controversial elements will have a better chance of passing if they all advance together to the state Capitol. However the Compact itself has been met with strong criticism and there is no certainty or commitment that every piece will move forward. 

What is the CASA Compact?

The CASA Compact was created by the Committee to House the Bay Area, a coalition of developers, business leaders, elected officials, labor interests and tenant advocates convened by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Recently endorsed by the MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments, known as ABAG, the CASA Compact consists of an ambitious ten-point planto: 

  • Spur housing construction through minimum zoning near transit; streamlined approvals and exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act; property tax breaks for developers; use of public lands for affordable housing; and further incentives for accessory dwelling units. “Sensitive communities” with a high percentage of low income residents, would get a grace period of up to 5 years to propose community-driven alternatives to meet state performance standards (i.e., housing production goals).
  • Protect renters through just-cause eviction rules and relocation assistance; access to emergency rent assistance and legal help; and a temporary cap limiting the size of annual rent increases.

The Compact calls for $1.5 billion in local and regional “self-help” funding (through taxes, fees, bonds and revenue set-asides) to implement the plan including: $1 billion from taxpayers, property owners and local governments; $400 million from employers; and $400 million from developers. At least 60 percent of that funding would go towards housing production, ten percent would go towards renter protections, and 20 percent would go toward preservation. 

Notably, the CASA Compact also calls for state legislation to create an independent Regional Housing Enterprise board comprised of MTC and ABAG representatives and the stakeholder representatives who developed the Compact itself. The unelected RHE would have authority to collect and disburse fees, taxes, and other revenues, allocate funding, and issue debt.

Competing interests of small and big cities 

The Mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose were all on the CASA Steering Committee and voted to approve the final CASA Compact. However, numerous other cities and towns have been strongly critical and objected that the interests of their cities were not represented. The Cities Association of Santa Clara County, representing 15 cities, argued that the Compact’s one-size-fits-all solutions neglect the diversity of needs in each city and threaten to leave cities “without adequate funding for the infrastructure that makes our communities whole – schools, transportation, etc.” Similarly, they argued that the failure to engage cities of all sizes in the plan’s development could lead to significant unintended consequences both locally and regionally.

In addition to the Cities Association, the cities of Berkeley, Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale all logged objections to the CASA Compact. Chief among their concerns were:

  • The intrusion on local land use decision-making (and the associated exclusion of community interests).
  • The diversion of property tax revenues that are vital to local General Funds and could result in cuts to core services in every Bay Area city; and the redistribution of those funds to counties (perceived as likely to benefit big cities at the expense of smaller cities with lesser voice in county decision-making).  
  • Undermining of effective and promising ongoing local strategies to confront jobs/housing imbalances and finance and support the availability of affordable housing.

Sunnyvale Mayor Glenn Hendricks likened the proposed funding mechanisms and changes to land use authority to “a direct assault on cities” and Mayor Steven Scharf of Cupertino described the Compact as “a product that 97 percent of Bay Area cities think is a terrible idea.” Palo Alto’s then-Mayor Liz Kniss wrote that “[i]t would be problematic for MTC, as an organization representing local governments, to advocate the sweeping legislative proposals embodied in the CASA Compact without clear and robust engagement opportunities for Bay Area communities.”

Selective enactment could subvert the “compromise.”

Without legislative action toward all three goals of production, preservation, and protection, the so-called compromise embodied in the CASA Compact falls apart. Although SB-50 is a fairly fleshed out bill, not every Compact element has received as much attention. And there is no mechanism to ensure cohesion among the bills seeking to implement various elements of the Compact. While housing production incentives have picked up steam, both in Sacramento and locally, they focus mostly on “missing middle” populations earning up to 150 percent of medium income or more. Efforts to expand low-income housing, renter protections and anti-displacement policies have faired more poorly. 

Perhaps indicative of the fragile promise of the CASA Compact’s “compromise,” the California Apartment Association, which represents landlords and participated in the CASA planning process, has already said it “will oppose any [CASA Compact] related legislation aimed at implementing the rent control and just cause eviction elements.”

SB-50 targets high quality school districts in renewed effort to limit local control over housing

Palo Alto Matters – December 8, 2018

Following the defeat of SB-827 in the 2018 legislative session, State Senator Scott Weiner circled the wagons and returned this month with a new proposal, SB-50, that adds some protections for existing rental housing sites and temporarily preserves local control for “sensitive communities” that are particularly vulnerable to displacement pressures. At the same time, however, SB-50 reaches far beyond the “transit-rich corridors” targeted for state mandates under SB-827.

SB-50 would require local governments to grant housing developers an “equitable communities incentive” not only for housing projects within a half mile of a major transit stop (rail station or ferry terminal) or a quarter mile of a stop on a high quality bus corridor, but also ANYWHERE that housing is allowed in an area deemed “job-rich” based on indicators such as “proximity to jobs, high area median income relative to the relevant region, and high-quality public schools.”  

At a minimum, the equitable communities incentive must include waivers of parking requirements greater than 0.5 spots per unit and any maximum density controls, as well as up to three additional incentives and concessions available under the existing State Density Bonus law. Those additional concessions include such things as increased height, site coverage, and Floor Area Ratio limits; reduced side- and rear- setback requirements; and reduced daylight plane requirements. 

Projects that are also close to transit and include a minimum, unspecified percentage of affordable units are then entitled to additional waivers as follows:

  • Within 1/2 mile, but more than 1/4 mile from a major transit stop: no height limits less than 45 feet, no Floor Area Ratio limits less than 2.5, and no parking requirements.
  • Within 1/4 mile of a major transit stop: no height limits less than 55 feet, no FAR limit less than 3.25, and no parking requirements.

The new, greater unit densities enabled by the waivers will form the baseline for calculating available additional concessions under the State Density Bonus law. 

SB-50 has only just been introduced and is likely to undergo some amendment before coming to a vote. However, if passed in its current form it would likely apply to all residential, mixed use, and commercial zones in Palo Alto, including every single-family neighborhood. Council members have already begun to weigh in with differing perspectives. On one hand Councilmember Adrian Fine expressed general support, saying “we need the state to step in … [l]ocal councils and the idolatry around local control are not going to solve our housing issues.” In contrast, Councilmember Eric Filseth said the bill was “horrible for voters” because it ignores that addressing the housing crisis depends on paying for all the infrastructure necessary to sustain regional growth. SB-50 “skips all that.” Whether City Council will take a position on SB-50 remains to be seen.