Facing a flurry of new applications for wireless antennas, Palo Alto officials are pushing back against proposed designs for the new equipment and considering a challenge to recently adopted federal rules that will make it easier for telecommunication companies to receive approvals.
Just this month, the city's Architectural Review Board had reviewed three different applications for new wireless equipment, two from Crown Castle on behalf of Verizon Wireless and another by Vinculums, also on behalf of Verizon. Meanwhile, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission endorsed changing local law on wireless equipment to comply with new federal regulations around "small wireless facilities."
The regulations, which the Federal Communications Commission adopted in September, create new "shotclocks" — time limits for reviews — for the types of wireless equipment typically mounted on local streetlights and utility poles. The new rules, which will take effect in January, give the city 60 days to review an application for wireless equipment that would be mounted on an existing pole or 90 days for an application that uses a new structure. Currently, the law includes a 150-day "shotclock" for such facilities.
Both the review process and the proposed code change come at a time when the city has applications for about 100 new wireless facilities going through the permitting process, Deputy City Attorney Albert Yang told the planning commission during its Dec. 12 discussion of the new rules. They also come at a time when wireless equipment is becoming an increasingly polarizing community topic, as evidenced by recent appeals from citizens whose neighborhood poles are being furnished with the new equipment.
The rash of proposals has created a tricky quandary for Palo Alto officials, who are trying to balance the city's demand for data with its desire to preserve neighborhood aesthetics. At the same time, local officials are navigating through a "highly litigated and regulated area," in the words of Architectural Review Board Chair Wynne Furth. Federal laws prohibit local jurisdictions from considering the health effects of new wireless equipment or from taking too long to review the proposals.
Even so, Palo Alto officials have done their part to slow down the Verizon projects. Of the three Verizon proposals that the board reviewed this month, it recommended rejecting one application, continued another to next month and approved the third.
Even the Dec. 6 affirmative vote was a mixed blessing for Verizon. In approving six street pole-mounted "nodes," the board included a key condition: that all equipment and associated wiring be located underground or completely concealed. Verizon has consistently resisted such directions in the past.
"I think we need to keep our eye on the ball that we want to keep equipment underground or out of site," said Architectural Review Board member Peter Baltay, who made the motion to require Verizon to build underground vaults for its downtown equipment.
The board's vote went further than the recommendation of planning staff, which had suggested approving four pole-mounted nodes (345 Forest Ave.; 248 Homer Ave.; 845 Ramona St.; and 190 Channing Ave.) and denying two others (at 275 Forest Ave., immediately adjacent to City Hall, and 345 Forest Ave., which would be adjacent to the historic Staller Court building).
Baltay faced a similar dilemma on Dec. 20, when the board considered the Vinculums proposal for seven cell nodes, one near Stanford Shopping Center and six in the Barron Park neighborhood. At that hearing, Baltay said he can't make the finding that the design would "enhance the surrounding area."
The board, he said, has in the past taken the view that utility poles are "ugly" and that placing new equipment on these poles is acceptable because "they're just making it a little bit more ugly."
"It's a bad situation. We're just making it a little bit worse," Baltay said.
Such logic, Baltay said, places the board on the slippery slope of allowing "incrementally worse" designs, rather than approving designs that "enhance" the area. In this case, the only way this can be achieved is through concealing equipment by building an underground fault, he said.
His colleagues generally agreed. Board member Osma Thompson said the new equipment "is not enhancing our surroundings." Board member David Hirsch was more blunt.
"We seem to be living in a world in which everything gets more cluttered and this effect is shown here as well," said Hirsch, referring to the Barron Park applications. "The light poles used to start out with just light on top and now they have all kinds of garbage," Hirsch said.
From Verizon's perspective, there's a good reason for that: People are using far more data than they had in the past. Rochelle Swanson, a consultant with the firm SureSite, told the Architectural Review Board on Dec. 6 that the goal of the new equipment is to improve both coverage and capacity.
"Years back, it was really about coverage," said Swanson, whose firm is working with Crown Castle on the new application. "Now, it's really about capacity because of the ubiquitous use of wireless, not just for phones but tablets and laptops. The amount of people using data is in rapid increase."
Even so, some residents have pushed back against the idea that greater data usage should necessarily involve more pole equipment. In May, dozens attended a heated City Council meeting to voice opposition Verizon's plan to install 11 equipment nodes on poles in the Midtown area. Despite their appeal that Verizon should be required to install underground vaults, the council approved the project as proposed by the telecom giant.
Some of these arguments resurfaced last week. Jerry Fan, a resident of Whitsell Avenue, spoke on behalf of several of his Barron Park neighbors on Dec. 20, when he urged the board to either require an underground vault or a different location for the Verizon equipment.
In addition the aesthetic impact, the new equipment could pose a fire threat, Fan said. The proposed antenna, he noted, would be located immediately adjacent to a coastal redwood tree, creating a potentially dangerous situation.
"Since it's really close to the tree, I think the branches will be endangered on the tree, which would be a hazard to that tree," Fan said, shortly before the board voted 4-1, with member Alex Lew dissenting, to reject Verizon's proposal.
Immediately after the vote, Furth noted the challenge of reviewing applications from telecommunication companies for wireless equipment.
"From our point of view, they’re an oligopoly," Furth said. "They get to shape the rules in their favor against us. But we also appreciate the services they provide."
Palo Alto isn't the only city struggling with this issue. On Dec. 12, the planning commission heard about a legal challenge that more than a dozen cities — including San Jose, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Portland, are mounting against the new FCC regulations. The planning commission ultimately agreed by a 4-1 vote to revise the local law to comply with the faster "shotclock" — a change that Deputy City Attorney Albert Yang said creates greater clarity about the local approval process. At the same time, commissioners agreed that the City Council should obtain a legal opinion on the ongoing litigation and decide whether Palo Alto should join the opposition.
Commissioner Doria Summa, the sole dissenter, was particularly skeptical about the new federal regulations and argued against conforming the city's regulations to the new FCC rules.
"It seems like there's a lot of moving parts to this and a lot that we don't know, including how many (wireless facilities) we can wind up with in the city," Summa said.