A group of Palo Alto residents is sounding off against a decision by the city's top planning official to approve the installation of wireless equipment on five downtown streetlight poles — a ruling that is now being challenged by both the project's sponsors and opponents.
The Jan. 4 decision by interim Planning Director Jonathan Lait to allow Crown Castle/Verizon Wireless to install five new "wireless communication facilities" came less than a month after the city's Architectural Review Board (ARB) discussed Crown Castle's plans and recommended that the facilities — which consist of antennas, cabling and radio equipment — be placed underground. Lait rejected two of the seven nodes that Crown Castle had proposed, a new pole structure next to 905 Waverley St. and a streetlight installation near 345 Forest Ave.
Now, the director's decision is facing two appeals. One from the citizens group United Neighbors, which is protesting Lait's approval of five wireless equipment "nodes," and another from Crown Castle, which is objecting to Lait's denial of the other two nodes in the application.
In approving the five nodes near 275 Forest Ave., 248 Homer Ave., 385 Homer Ave., 845 Ramona St. and 190 Channing Ave., Lait specified that the antenna, cabling and radio equipment not be visible and be "concealed and screened with a custom green painted, cylindrical shroud that is mounted on top of the replacement street pole." Lait's letter acknowledges that his approvals take into consideration but "differ somewhat" from the Architectural Review Board's recommendation, which was based on a design that featured "faux mailboxes" mounted on streetlights.
At its Dec. 6 meeting, the architecture board largely agreed that the city should make a greater effort in encouraging underground vaults for cellular equipment. Its approval of Crown Castle's "Cluster 2" application by a 4-1 vote specified that the equipment be underground — an idea that Crown Castle has consistently rejected. Vice Chair Peter Baltay argued at the time that the board should push to have this equipment "underground or out of sight."
The board took a similar stance last week, when it rejected by a 3-1 vote (with Chair Wynne Furth recused and board member Alex Lew dissenting) another proposal from Crown Castle for pole-mounted equipment, known as "Cluster 3."
Lait agreed with the board that the nodes that were presented to the Architectural Review Board "could not be approved as proposed based on aesthetic impacts, inconsistency with development standards and interference with multi-modal circulation in the downtown area where the city has undergrounded utilities at great expense." In explaining his denial of the two faux mailbox proposals, he wrote that the cabinet under this equipment "creates a false sense of place and clutters the otherwise careful siting of the corner."
But in five of the seven nodes, requiring shrouds that conceal the equipment would mitigate that impact, he suggested.
"The conditions of approval reduce these impacts such that the nodes would be consistent with all required findings," Lait wrote.
Jeanne Fleming, founder of United Neighbors, pushed back against his findings and argued that Lait's approval was improper because neither the architecture board nor the neighbors have had a chance to review the "shroud" design he is requiring.
"Planning Director Lait, who is not an architect, has thrown out the recommendations of Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board and approved Crown Castle's cell towers without even seeing what they actually look like," Fleming wrote to the council on Jan. 10.
In her letter, she urged council members to direct Lait to withdraw his decision until Crown Castle provides photographs and a mock-up installation showing what the new equipment would look like. A week later, she followed up with a formal appeal letter that characterized Lait's approval of the Crown Castle project as "an extraordinary break with administrative precedent."
"Because his decision was based on a new design -- a new design that was never reviewed at a public meeting -- his actions denied the public its right under the law to a fair and timely hearing," Fleming wrote in the appeal.
Lait said the shroud design he approved is consistent with shrouds that the Architectural Review Board had considered and approved in prior projects. And while the board had recommended placing the equipment underground, Lait said staff had determined that doing so would not be feasible. The city has its own utility infrastructure underground in the downtown area, including equipment that is in close proximity to Crown Castle's proposed sites.
"The burden of demonstrating that they can go underground is with the city under federal law," Lait told the Weekly. "We felt it wasn't feasible to place them underground in downtown."
But while Lait said that the shroud design is similar to that in prior applications, some residents protested his approval of this option without more public outreach.
"The people of Palo Alto need to be able to see what will be put next to their homes and provide feedback along with the ARB on the design before anything gets approved," resident Kelly Germa wrote to the council.
"If Planning Director Lait would reject every decision made by ARB that does not please the big telecom companies, why should we have the ARB in place to examine carefully the applications from the big telecom companies?" wrote Herc Kwan, a Louis Road resident.
Lait said the shrouded antenna in Crown Castle's equipment would increase the height of the pole by between 18 and 24 inches. A mock-up, he said, was not necessary in this case. All one needs is "a little imagination" to see the design, as initially submitted, but a few feet higher.
While the residents argued that Lait was too lenient in his approvals, Crown Castle is insisting that he was too harsh in his denials. Two days after Fleming filed her appeal, the company filed its own, protesting the city's rejection of proposed nodes near 375 Forest Ave. and 905 Waverley St. That decision, Crown Castle argued in its appeal, is based on insufficient evidence.
"The city presented no analysis of individual nodes and identified no alternatives to the proposed node sites, leaving Crown Castle with no recourse aside from an appeal to the City Council," Sharon James, Crown Castle's manager for government relations, wrote. "Moreover, the conditions placed upon the five approved nodes materially limits the effectiveness of the individual nodes and the wireless network as a whole, foreclosing Crown Castle from closing the significant gap in service."
The two appeals mean that the issue will now go to the City Council, which is facing the issue of wireless equipment with increasing frequency. In May 2018, the council voted 6-3 to reject a prior appeal by Fleming and her group, which opposed Verizon's proposal to install wireless equipment at 11 poles.
Residents will have plenty more opportunities to appeal such projects. Lait on Wednesday issued a letter approving the proposal by Vinculums to install seven cell nodes, one at Stanford Shopping Center and six in the Barron Park neighborhood. Because two of Vinculums nodes (near 785 Barron Ave. and 4206 Suzanne Drive) are in locations that don't have trees to screen them, Lait has required that Vinculums construct custom shrouds mounted on top of the wood utility pole for the proposed equipment in these locations.
Meanwhile, Crown Castle's Cluster 3 application is under review, with a decision expected in the coming weeks.
The council is also preparing to consider changes in the city's zoning law that would make local rules consistent with newly adopted federal regulations. These regulations create a faster approval process for certain types of wireless equipment (a 60-day limit on deliberation for wireless equipment that would be mounted on an existing pole and a 90-day limit for equipment that uses a new structure).
The City Council is tentatively scheduled to hear both appeals of the Crown Castle application on Feb. 4.