Verizon Wireless overcame a spotty and, at times, hostile reception from a large group of Palo Alto residents Monday night to secure the City Council's permission to install wireless equipment on 11 utility poles.
In a long, contentious and emotionally charged meeting that was frequently interrupted by heckling and applause, the council voted 6-3, with Councilwoman Karen Holman, Councilwoman Lydia Kou and Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, to grant Verizon the green light to mount its wireless equipment on 11 utility poles. In doing so, it rejected seven separate appeals from residents, including one from the group United Neighbors that was formed in opposition to the project.
Most of the opposition focused on Verizon's refusal to place its equipment into underground vaults, a design that the company had adopted in Piedmont and Santa Cruz (among other cities) and that was favored by the Architectural Review Board. Some argued that the proposed cell nodes -- each of which includes an antenna and boxes containing radio equipment -- are unsightly and unacceptable in residential areas.
Verizon has maintained that it had studied the underground option at each of the 18 sites that were initially proposed (seven were ultimately removed from the application) and submitted a "vaulting analysis" for each site. In some cases, the company deemed the vault as infeasible because the site is in flood zones, which would require installation of sump pumps and potentially lead to safety issues. In another case, the site is constrained by a storm-drain channel and a large tree that would have to be removed to make room for the vault. Another site has insufficient space for a vault and would require an intrusion onto a private property, according to the company.
Rather than going down with the radio equipment, Verizon opted to go up. After a series of public hearings, the company settled on a design that places antennas atop existing poles and screens them with "a taper shroud," a narrow cylindrical enclosure that tapers as it descends. The radio equipment in the middle of the pole would be contained in a "box shroud," a metallic enclosure that looks exactly how it sounds.
While the design was enough to narrowly win the Architectural Review Board's approval, it fell far short of sway many of the residents whose houses are located near the pole sites. Appellants rejected Verizon's arguments about the vaults and argued that the telecom giant is simply trying to save money at the expense of local residents.
Jerry Fan, one of dozens of residents who attended the meeting to voice his opposition, said he and his neighbors don't want to live in an "antenna farm." A multibillion-dollar company like Verizon can afford to install its equipment without undermining the aesthetics of local neighborhoods.
"The real problem for Verizon is not that it is infeasible to locate the equipment underground but that it is more expensive to do so," said Fan, who was representing appellant Francesca Lane Kautz.
Jeanne Fleming, who founded the group United Neighbors, which filed one of the seven appeals, concurred. There are solutions, she said, to every "so-called engineering problem" raised by Verizon.
"The only problem is that these solutions can cost more than Verizon wants to spend. But there is absolutely no reason why Palo Alto should compromise the character of its lovely neighborhood to save Verizon money," Fleming said.
But other residents welcomed Verizon's plan, which they argued would provide them badly needed cell coverage.
"I speak on the phone routinely with folks around the works and I have to apologize for Palo Alto routinely because of my terrible cellphone service," said Bryan Polich, a Midtown resident. "I always have to commute to work, when I have to work from home."
While the Verizon design didn't win any plaudits from the council, most members agreed that in the context of a utility pole, the proposed equipment is a relatively benign addition. Holman and Kou dissented from this view and argued that the city should insist on underground vaults.
"It's a box on a pole and I don't see what's elegant about it," Holman said of the proposed design. "It's setting the bar very, very low. I don't think it's acceptable in this community and it shouldn't be."
Kou suggested that if the sites don't work for vaulting, Verizon should just move to a different site.
"If that vault doesn't work for you, just don't do it. It's just as simple as that," Kou said.
Their proposal ultimately fell by a 4-5 vote, with Councilman Tom DuBois and Tanaka joining them. The council then voted 6-3 to accept the motion from Councilman Greg Scharff, who proposed rejecting the appeals and allowing the proposal to move ahead. Scharff acknowledged that utility poles are inherently unattractive, but suggested the Verizon equipment would be hardly noticeable in the context of the pole.
Insisting on vaults, meanwhile, would require Verizon to install a pump and equipment that according to company officials would generate noise. Given the choice between having vaulted equipment in his own neighborhood and a pole with silent antennas, Scharff said he would opt for the latter.
"When you weigh it -- when you weigh the aesthetics, when you weigh the noise, when you weigh safety -- when you weigh all those things, the better choice is to put it on the pole," Scharff said. "It's completely quiet. It doesn't make a sound and you can barely see it compared to the pole."
Councilman Adrian Fine concurred and noted that the application has successfully gone through the city's approval process and has earned the approval of the Architectural Review Board and former Planning Director Hillary Gitelman.
DuBois said he was skeptical about Verizon's assertion that underground vaults would be infeasible at all 11 sites. He also suggested that the company consider each design in the context of its setting, rather than picking one preferred option for every site.
"In some places, poles might be appropriate; in some places, vaulting might be appropriate," DuBois said.
Tanaka, for his part, focused his questions on the financial arrangement between Verizon and the city. Under the existing agreement, Verizon has to pay $270 annually for each pole -- an amount that Tanaka claimed is well below what the city should be charging. He also had broader concerns about mounting equipment on top of telephone poles, given the city's ambition to eventually move utilities underground.
The meeting stretched for longer than four hours and featured frequent interruptions from members of the audience, many of whom ignored Mayor Liz Kniss' routinely made request not to clap or jeer for public speakers. A few audience members continued to clap or wave their hands in approval or disapproval. One man stood up after every speaker to respond with either a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down gesture to the comment spoken.
Toward the end of the discussion, Kniss called for a 10-minute recess after she tried to ask the audience a question about cellphone usage and was greeted with angry shouts.
Even Holman, who sympathized with the substance of most of the criticisms of Verizon, took issue with the tone of the meeting and chided the audience for its behavior.
"I'm disappointed that, for whatever reason, that this community decided it's OK to yell, to show one behind to the speakers, to stand with middle fingers projected toward at the council," Holman said. "It's not acceptable."