AT&T's controversial plan to install 80 antennas on utility poles throughout Palo Alto surged forward Monday night (Jan. 23) when the City Council approved the first phase of the company's proposal.
The council voted 7-1, with Councilman Greg Schmid dissenting and Mayor Yiaway Yeh recusing himself, to uphold earlier approvals of the AT&T application by the city's Architectural Review Board and by Planning and Community Environment Director Curtis Williams. The council hearing was prompted by four separate appeals.
Related story: AT&T's antenna plan moves forward in Palo Alto (Dec. 9, 2011)
The council's vote means that AT&T can proceed with installing antennas at 19 locations throughout the city. Each installation will include a vertical antenna over an existing pole, a battery box and a radio box. The vote also means that the company can proceed with the later phases of its "distributed antenna system" (DAS) without going through the public-hearing process. The system will ultimately feature 80 antennas.
Dozens of proponents and opponents of the AT&T application packed into City Hall for the appeal hearing, with some residents sporting "No DAS" stickers and others wearing "Yes!" stickers. Proponents argued during the public-comment period that the antennas are desperately needed in a city that remains plagued by dead spots despite its reputation as a hub of innovation. Others argued that the proposed antennas are unsightly and that the city should create a "master plan" for wireless technology rather than approve applications one by one.
Paula Rantz, who filed one of four appeals, requested in her appeal that the "application be denied until the City has come up with a comprehensive Wireless Master Plan for the installation of cell towers/nodes taking into the account the needs of the various providers AND the overall impact to our community." Stacey Bishop, meanwhile, argued that the antenna proposed for 1880 Park Blvd. would be less than 20 feet from her home and in direct line of sight from various rooms.
"It's simply too close to a residential home to have an antenna," Bishop told the council.
The council agreed and directed staff to consider other locations in the area for the antenna. The most likely location is 1920 Park Blvd., a site that AT&T had previously considered before opting to move its antenna farther away from the corner and closer to trees.
But the council also acknowledged that AT&T has legal rights to install its equipment and approved the other 19 antennas. Various state and federal laws, including the Telecommunications Act, restrict the city's ability to deny applications to wireless-service providers. According to a report from Current Planning Manager Amy French, federal law prohibits the city from regulating the placement of wireless equipment based on impact from radio frequency, provided the emissions from equipment comply with Federal Communication Commission regulations.
The council's purview of Monday was limited largely to aesthetic issues, and members concluded at the end of their long discussion that the visual and noise impacts of the antennas would not be significant enough to warrant denial.
"They're certainly not going to be put in an art museum, but they aren't anything that's going to detract from our community," Klein said of the antennas.
AT&T had revised its application last year after many in the community panned the company's prior design, a U-shaped installation consisting of two antennas over a utility pole. The Architectural Review Board in November approved the new monolithic design and added a long list of conditions, including one that the equipment be tested for compliance with the city's noise ordinance immediately upon installation.
"We see this right now as the best way to provide wireless services in the near future in Palo Alto that would best serve the community in a very aesthetically sensitive way," AT&T's counsel Paul Albritton told the council.
Councilman Sid Espinosa said he was pleased with the application process because it led the city and AT&T toward a better design. He was one of several council members who voiced enthusiasm about improved cell reception.
"I hear from a lot of Palo Altans about dropped calls," Espinosa said. "I'm excited that we're creating the coverage people would expect here in Palo Alto and in Silicon Valley."
Klein and Espinosa both noted that the council had little choice but to approve the application. Doing otherwise, Klein said, would probably bring forth a lawsuit that the city would likely lose. Even Rantz acknowledged that the city's rights when it comes to wireless equipment are severely limited.
"Our power to determine the character of our community has been taken away at the state and federal level," Rantz told the council Monday.
"We're in what many people call the innovation capital of the world, and yet we have no right -- zero right -- to have a master plan," she added.
While Rantz's appeal focused on the entire application, two others (one from Bishop and one from Janell Sumida-Riker) protested specific site proposals. A fourth appeal, filed by Cooley LLP on behalf of Tench Coxe, argued that AT&T has chosen the wrong technology.
Related story: Residents appeal AT&T antenna plan (Dec. 30, 2011)
But many of the speakers at Monday's meeting said they welcome the improved cell coverage. Leon Beauchman, director of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Wireless Communications Initiative, said his group is promoting an effort to make the entire Silicon Valley a "4G region." So far, he said, San Jose is the only city in Silicon Valley that supports the fourth-generation standard for wireless (what is commonly known as "4G").
"We're trying to catch up so that we can take advantage of the technology that was invented right here in Silicon Valley," Beauchman said.
Schmid voted against the application, saying he was disappointed that the project is moving forward without a broader strategic discussion about wireless equipment. Yeh recused himself from the discussion because of a property interest.
AT&T responded to the city's approval with a statement saying Palo Alto "took a needed step tonight in advancing the wireless needs of its community."
"We appreciate the effort of the staff and council in working through the concerns raised and will continue to work with them to ensure we can implement this critical wireless upgrade."
The antennas will be installed at utility poles near the following locations:
179 and 595 Lincoln Ave., 1851 Bryant St., 1401 Emerson Ave., 134 Park Ave., 109 Coleridge Ave., 1345, 1720 and 2326 Webster St., 1248 and 2101 Waverley St., 968 Dennis Drive, 370 Lowell Ave., 105 Rinconada Ave., 2704 Louis Road, 464 Churchill Ave., 255 North California Ave., 1085 Arrowhead Way, and Oregon Expressway near Ross Road.