A polarizing proposal by Verizon Wireless to mount radio equipment on 11 utility poles in Palo Alto moved ahead on Thursday morning, when the city's Architectural Review Board narrowly endorsed the plan over objections of area residents.
By a 3-2 vote, with Peter Baltay and Robert Gooyer dissenting, the board recommended that the city issue permits to Verizon to install small cell nodes on poles in the Midtown, Palo Verde, and St. Claire Gardens neighborhoods. The 11 nodes comprise the first cluster in an application jointly filed by Verizon and Vinculums, a developer of wireless technology. The company ultimately plans to install equipment at 93 nodes throughout Palo Alto.
The city is also evaluating two separate applications from Crown Castle and Verizon, one targeting five utility poles in University South and another one that would use six utility poles in Downtown North.
Though the Thursday hearing focused on 11 specific poles, the board considered the application as an important precedent setter. At a prior meeting in December, board members considered the design options provided by Verizon and demanded that the companies consider options that would place all the equipment except the antenna in underground vaults.
Since then, Verizon had explored the idea of underground vaults but ultimately ruled it out. Company officials told the board Thursday that six of the 11 utility poles are located in the flood zone, which makes placing equipment underground not feasible. In other cases, the company encountered different obstacles, said Jennifer Haas, a Verizon network representative. These include narrow, sloped sidewalks and street trees with extensive underground root systems.
She also noted that placing the radios in a vault would require installation of more equipment, including fans to keep the radio cool, venting that allows hot air to exit the vault and pumps, in the event of water intrusion.
Not everyone bought the explanation. Resident Jeanne Fleming, a critic of the Verizon application, argued that the company is being disingenuous in declining to go underground with its equipment. Vaults can work, if the company were willing to make the investment, she said.
"We think these guys can afford to pick up the tab for water-damaged equipment once in a while if they had to," Fleming said. "We also think there's no good reason why Verizon should be allowed to shift the cost to us, in the form of a lowered quality of life, lowered home values and increased taxpayer liability by putting its ugly commercial equipment on poles right next to our homes."
Fleming was one of more than two dozen residents who spoke at the meeting. A few welcomed Verizon's plan, which they said would bolster their weak cell coverage and improve emergency response. Most, however, were either skeptical of Verizon's proposal or outright hostile to it.
"Do we need additional potential environmental pollutants and hazards in our neighborhood ... which are designed to benefit Verizon," questioned resident Barbara Criner, who lives near a proposed node site. "And I say no, we don't need it."
While some of the speakers complained about the impacts of wireless equipment on public health and property values, the board focused on aesthetics -- the only area in which it has purview. For the second time since December, they were considering what type of shrouds are most appropriate for the pole-mounted wireless equipment.
Baltay and Gooyer rejected Verizon's explanation and insisted that the radios be placed in vaults. They each called all the proposed options "ugly." Baltay also rejected Verizon's assertion that sloped curbs make it hard for them to install vaults. All the company has to do, he said, is redesign a lid so that it catches water that rolls off the slope and into the vault.
"We can put a rocket on the moon, we can build cellphones with more power than the Saturn rockets. Surely, we can figure out how to make a vault with a slightly sloped lid," Baltay said.
Ultimately, three of the five members agreed to support Verizon's proposal. They agreed that the best way to conceal the antenna is a "taper shroud," a metal enclosure shaped with a long, narrow flashlight pointing at the sky from the top of the pole. The radios, meanwhile, would be enclosed by a thin, narrow "box shroud" in the middle of the pole. Board Chair Wynne Furth and members Alex Lew and Osma Thompson all supported these options, thus advancing Verizon's application.
The architectural panel isn't the only city body that has been forced to weigh residents' anxieties against Verizon's legal rights. The City Council on Monday night approved a revision to its zoning code that authorizes planning staff to take applications for wireless equipment to the Architectural Review Board (consistent with the current practice, which is not clearly described out in the code).
The code change clarifies that the planning director (who has the authority to approve permits for wireless communications facilities) may refer applications to the board and the Planning and Transportation Commission and that appeals are heard directly by the council.
The council's vote came two weeks after a group of more than 20 residents attended a meeting to beseech council members not to make any changes that curtail the public review process. Given the huge level of interest in the topic, council members reiterated Monday that the change approved by staff merely "streamlines" and clarifies the process.
Councilman Adrian Fine noted that the Federal Communications Commission has a "shot clock" that forces cities to make a decision on each application within a certain period (in the case of Verizon's application, the period is 150 days), unless the applicant grants an extension. This makes it even more critical for the city to have a clear approval and appeal process.
"The risk is that because the FCC has a shot clock, we don't want the uncertainty to delay the application and force us to approve a permit," Fine said. "We want to make sure we have a set of steps in effect for all these applications to go forward."