Palo Alto's rapidly shifting rules for installation of wireless communication equipment changed again Monday night when the City Council revised a rule that limited the height at which cellular antennas could be placed on poles.
The prior rule, which the council established on April 15, prohibited wireless communication facilities (WCF) from extending by more than 3 to 6 feet above the height of "similar surrounding poles." The exact distance varied based on the type of design. Thus, equipment enclosed in tapered "shrouds" were prohibited from going more than 3 feet above the pole (or surrounding poles), while equipment in a top-mounted bayonet had to stay within 6 feet.
The council approved by a 5-2 vote, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou and Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, a resolution that changes these rules as they pertain to surrounding poles. According to a memo from the office of City Attorney Molly Stump, the April rule created a "conflict" between the city's standards and the streetlight-pole specifications adopted by the Utilities Department.
The memo noted that streetlight poles in downtown would have to be replaced over time, with poles that are between 21 and 23 feet tall making way for ones that are 25 feet tall, in accordance with the city's recent effort to "standardize" the heights. A telecom company would be effectively prohibited from mounting equipment on the replacement poles, which would be taller than the heights of surrounding poles.
In these situations, the memo notes, there would be "insufficient space for pole-top WCF antennae or other equipment." Under the new rules, the equipment still would not be able to extend beyond 6 feet (or less, depending on the design) of the pole on which it is mounted. The restrictions would, however, no longer take into consideration surrounding poles.
While the memo frames the change as a minor clarification, both Kou and Tanaka opposed the change. Kou characterized the rule change as a way to make things easier for applicants, at the expense of residents.
"It just feels like every time an applicant wants something — changing the law here which actually protects the residents — (it) just keeps on changing," Kou said. "Just to get the applicants to be able to get what they want without really considering or fully working to consider the safety and health of the residents."
The revision came less than two months after the city adopted a rule banning the installation of wireless equipment within 300 feet of schools. That change, however, fell well short of what many residents had clamored for, including a 1,000-foot setback from schools and a 300-foot setback from homes. Kou dissented in the June 19 vote as well out of concern that the new limitation didn't go far enough.
Meanwhile, dozens of residents have emailed the council in recent weeks, encouraging the council to follow the example of Los Altos, which recently adopted new limitations on cell equipment being installed in residential neighborhoods. While the new Los Altos rules do not entirely except cell nodes in residential neighborhoods, they do require applicants to demonstrate that they had considered other options for delivering the needed service before proposing the equipment. They also impose a 500-foot setback from schools and a 1,500-foot separation between cell "nodes."
Emboldened by Los Altos' example, Palo Alto residents submitted letters of their own council, noting that it only took a month for Los Altos to act on the issue.
The new Los Altos ordinance, a form letter states, "includes many of the sensible provisions Palo Alto residents have long been asking for -- provisions such as disfavoring cell towers in residential neighborhoods, establishing minimum distances between cell towers, requiring annual safety inspections of equipment and more."
The letter asked council members to finish the job they started on April 15, when they approved the new objective standards for wireless equipment.
"Please immediately revise our Wireless Ordinance so that Palo Alto stops allowing telecommunications companies to install ugly, noisy, potentially hazardous and least-expensive-for-them cell tower equipment anywhere they want in our beautiful, quiet, safe neighborhoods," the letter states.
Some residents added personal notes to the letter. Celia Boyle and Jay Hopkins, who live on Barron Avenue, wrote that they already have two cell towers on the street, with a third one now under consideration across the street from an elementary school.
Kelly Ranger, a mother of two very young children, said she lives about 20 feet from a telephone pole that is now being considered for new equipment. Given that the city had already banned cell nodes near schools, she asked, why isn't it instituting a similar rule near homes?
"Presumably, the setback for schools is to protect our children from potentially harming long term exposure to EMF (electromagnetic field) radiation," she wrote. "So why wouldn't we have similar setbacks for our children's homes where they actually spend the MAJORITY of their time?"