Seeking to balance the legal rights of telecommunication companies and residents' aversion to clunky cell equipment occupying city property, Palo Alto officials narrowly approved on Monday a compromise on a wireless proposal that left both sides feeling unsatisfied.
The City Council voted 4-3, with council members Tom DuBois, Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka dissenting, to reject two appeals pertaining to Crown Castle's application for seven wireless communication facilities in the downtown area. In doing so, it reaffirmed interim Planning Director Jonathan Lait's decision to approve a modified design for five of the seven nodes proposed by Crown Castle and to reject the remaining two.
The council reached its verdict after hearing arguments from both Crown Castle, which protested Lait's modification of its proposal, and the citizen groups United Neighbors, which argued that he should have required all equipment to be underground, in accordance with the recommendation of the Architectural Review Board. Instead, the condition calls for five of the nodes — near 275 Forest Ave., 248 Homer Ave., 385 Homer Ave., 845 Ramona St., and 190 Channing Ave. — to be mounted on streetlights and concealed by shrouds.
He also rejected a proposed node near 345 Forest Ave., which would have required a replacement streetlight next to the historic Laning Chateau Apartments building, and near 905 Waverley Ave., which would have required a new pole. Lait said both nodes could be accommodated by other street poles in the area.
Lait also told the council that the design he had recommended is consistent with a prior application, from AT&T, which the council had approved. Though it deviated from the Architectural Review Board's decision on Dec. 6 to require that all equipment be placed in underground vaults (or otherwise installed "out of sight"), Lait said the option isn't feasible because the city has underground utilities in the downtown area, leaving little space for the Crown Castle equipment.
"With all of our utilities underground, we felt it would have been even more difficult to accommodate the radio equipment," Lait said, adding that the burden of demonstrating the ability to place utilities underground, by law, falls on the city.
But while his argument swayed the bare majority of the council, it enraged some of the residents, who insisted that his approval of the streetlight design without any hearings effectively deprived the public of its right to review the design. Seconds after the vote, Jeanne Fleming, who filed the appeal on behalf of United Neighbors, interrupted the council by shouting over its discussion.
"Mr. Mayor, you have denied our appeal! We were denied a public hearing!" Fleming said. "We had a right to a public hearing!"
She was joined by about a dozen other speakers, all of whom protested the approval of the Crown Castle equipment, which would be used by Verizon. On the other side of the debate was Michael Shonafelt, an attorney for Verizon, who argued that the city's decision is effectively a move to regulate technology, which is legally outside the city's purview. Modifications to its application, including the creation of underground vaults for its equipment, would hamper Crown Castle's ability to meet its coverage goals.
Lait acknowledged that the pole-top equipment he had approved would offer less coverage than Crown Castle's original proposal and would likely necessitate an installation of more equipment in the future. Shonafelt suggested that this was unacceptable.
"We're looking for above-ground solutions. We're looking for something that we can advance that is as aesthetically pleasing as we can achieve while still achieving our radio frequency coverage objectives," Shonafelt said.
Some council members — most notably council members Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou — suggested that the city should delay or condition its decision based on ongoing legislative efforts and litigation pertaining to recent Federal Communication Commission regulations, which require a more streamlined approval process for certain types of wireless equipment (the regulations include a 60-day deadline for cities to approve certain types of wireless equipment).
DuBois also recommended that instead of streetlight poles, Crown Castle consider using the City Hall rooftop to get the coverage it needs — a suggestion that Shonafelt declined. Kou said Palo Alto should assist the coalition of cities, which includes (among others) San Jose and Burlingame, in challenging the new 60-day "shot clock." DuBois said the city should continue to focus on neighborhood aesthetics and protect local streets from the intrusion of new equipment.
"Some cities are hands-off and they have a lot of ugly antennas," DuBois said.
Based on his and Kou's feedback, the council approved a condition to its approval: If FCC's rules change based on litigation or new legislation, Crown Castle would have to install its replacement equipment below ground to the extent feasible. That condition passed 4-3, with council members Allison Cormack, Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Adrian Fine dissenting.
The council majority, meanwhile, agreed with Lait and city staff that the city's options are somewhat hampered by state and federal regulations, which govern most rules surrounding telecommunications. Councilwoman Liz Kniss also made a case for improving the city's wireless coverage. The council, she said, often hears from the public complaints about parts of town that are "dead to reception." She told the project opponents that improving coverage may sometimes require "unattractive additions."
"The flip side is that there will be times where you will need to use your phones and you will be in a dead zone," Kniss said.
The verdict, however, left many unsatisfied. During the hearing, some residents pushed back against Crown Castle's and Lait's assertions that going underground would not be feasible. Others argued that Lait's approval of the application was not done in a transparent manner.
"The future of Palo Alto's wireless infrastructure should be debated in the public forum that ARB meetings provide and the experts of the ARB should be deciding what's in our best interests and in the best interests of our neighborhoods," resident Leonard Schwartz told the council.
"The cell tower decision-making process in Palo Alto should be occurring in the sunlight of public hearings and not behind closed doors, the way the decision we're appealing tonight was."
Peter Baltay, a member of the Architectural Review Board, said the board didn't offer any solution to Crown Castle about what it should do to achieve its needed coverage — a decision that is well beyond the purview of the board. The board believed, however, that there should be a way for Crown Castle to meet its goals without the type of equipment that it had proposed — faux mailboxes that would be placed next to street poles and that would contain antennas, cabling and radio equipment.
"Our frustration comes from fact that the applicant made very little effort to take our advice to heart and try to find a solution that works," Baltay told the council.