Bowing to concerns from a group of residents, the Palo Alto City Council agreed this week to ban new wireless antennas from being installed on poles within 300 feet of public schools.
The council voted 6-1, with Lydia Kou dissenting, to revise its rules for wireless communication facilities, which are becoming increasingly common and controversial in neighborhoods throughout Palo Alto. The city has already approved dozens of wireless antennas and has more than 100 in the pipeline.
The resolution that the council passed also eliminated a provision pertaining to the placement of wireless equipment in relation to second-story windows. The provision specified that wireless equipment on multistory buildings not be placed in a "horizontal plane," which is defined as a "45-degree angle extending 50 feet from the center point of upper story windows, doors, balconies and other openings."
Planning staff had determined that the standard would "result in little practical impact" because an applicant could easily comply with it by shifting the equipment by just a few inches. As such, the requirement presents "a limited restriction on placement of WCFs (wireless communication facilities)," a report from the City Attorney's Office states.
Kou had urged more stringent requirements, including a 1,000-foot setback from schools for new wireless equipment and a 300-foot setback near residences. She also opposed the deletion of the clause pertaining to placement of the equipment in relation to upper-story windows. Her proposal fizzled after no other council member supported it.
As at prior discussions of wireless equipment, the council heard from several community members raising concerns about the health impacts of the telecommunication technology. John Melnychuk said he is concerned not just about the aesthetics of wireless equipment but also about its impact on children.
Jerry Fan, a Barron Park resident whose house is next to an antenna site, told the council that his children go to Barron Park Elementary School, which is close to another new antenna site. He said he was concerned about his children "spending 24 hours a day next to a radiation-beaming cell tower."
But resident Jeff Saunders took the opposite view and questioned the scientific assumptions of those opposing the new cell equipment. More cell towers, he said, means "less overall radiation" because having a tower in close proximity means that a resident's cellphone doesn't have to radiate as much to reach that tower.
"If you have a higher density of cell antennas, each of those antennas radiates at a lower power and, more importantly, this radiates at a lower power," Saunders said, holding up a phone.
The council did not weigh in on the health impacts of the new equipment (its ability to do so is limited by Telecommunications Act of 1996, which restricts cities' ability to regulate radio-frequently emissions). Instead, council members focused on aesthetics. Councilman Tom DuBois, who supported the 300-foot setback requirements for schools, noted that even with the change, the city still has an issue with poles that are located directly in front of someone's house. He asked staff to come back at a later date with design standards that limit having wireless equipment installed on these poles.
"I'd really like to see an aesthetic preference to choose poles near property lines, not in the middle of someone's front yard," DuBois said.
The new rules will not apply to pending applications or to previously approved projects, according to the staff report.
The new ban falls below the limit outlined in a resolution on placing cell towers near school district campuses that was supported by the Palo Alto Board of Education on Tuesday. The resolution calls for the cell towers to be set back by 1,500 feet from schools and asks the city to notify the district of proposed projects near school sites.