Rejecting an appeal from a group of residents, the Palo Alto City Council approved last week a plan by Verizon to install wireless equipment on three city poles.
In doing so, however, the council found that Verizon had failed to comply with public noticing requirements when it did not issue letters to residents of Channing House, a senior community located near Verizon's proposed antenna at 850 Webster Ave.
By a 4-2 vote, with council members Lydia Kou and Greer Stone dissenting and Mayor Tom DuBois absent, the council conditioned its June 22 approval on Verizon providing additional outreach to Channing House, including a participation session. Kou and Stone voted to accept the appeal and reject Verizon's application.
The notification issue was one of 19 that the citizens group, United Neighbors, listed in its appeal of Verizon's plan to install "nodes" — consisting of radios and antennas — at poles near 853 Middlefield Road, 1221 Middlefield Road and 850 Webster. Paul Albritton, an attorney representing Verizon, said that the application team was surprised to learn that the firm that handles its mailings had failed to notify the roughly 200 residents of Channing House.
Jeanne Fleming, founder of United Neighbors, said that the company's failure to notify residents should be grounds for rejection.
"Even if senior city staff and Verizon view the code requirement as an inconvenient and irrelevant set of marks to hit, for residents, the notifications of proposed projects and the community meetings are vital," Fleming said. "Vital for bringing the application process out from behind the closed doors and into public view. Vital for having the application process be transparent."
Appellants and council members also took issue with the proposed design — namely, the shrouds that would cover Verizon's 5G equipment. The city's design guidelines require antennas and equipment on top of the pole to be covered by "a single integrated shroud." Verizon has argued that a single shroud covering all the antennas in its node would diminish the wireless signal and has instead proposed a design in which each antenna has a separate small shroud. United Neighbors argued that this is a violation.
Fleming noted that the council's recently approved guidelines intended to make new wireless equipment inconspicuous.
"What Verizon has proposed is the opposite of inconspicuous," Fleming said. "They want to stick either two or three shrouds on top of a slender streetlight pole."
Kou and Stone both concurred and supported rejecting Verizon's proposal in part because of the design issues. Stone suggested that the company's application requests too many exceptions, while Kou argued that Verizon's multiple-shroud design should be vetted by the Architectural Review Board before the application is approved. She also deemed Verizon's lapse of notices unacceptable.
"I believe residents have expectations," Kou said. "When they're living here, they have expectations to ensure their quality of life and to know what will come and impact them in one manner or another. These notices are in place for a reason, and people need to know when these kinds of impactful matters will come into their lives."
The council majority, however, sided with Planning Director Jonathan Lait, who approved Verizon's plan and accepted its argument that strictly following the "single-shroud" design would impact service. Albritton, Verizon's attorney, noted that the city's guidelines provide for situations in which antennas cannot penetrate through a shroud. In such cases, he said, a single-shroud is not required.
"We‘ve gone out of our way to provide a small shroud to hide the cabling on each individual antenna, working staff, but the adjustment this provided for in your guidelines anticipates 5G service and that you cannot shroud it," Albritton said.
The Tuesday hearing wasn't the first time that the council found itself weighing — and splitting over — complex legal, technical and design issues pertaining to wireless equipment. In 2019, a challenge by United Neighbors to a proposal from AT&T for seven wireless nodes failed by a single vote (the council moved at that time, after a long debate, to permit five of the seven nodes in the AT&T proposal). The council has also responded to a recent uptick in wireless applications — and residents' appeals — by upgrading the city's design standards to require wireless facilities to either be shrouded or installed underground.
That effort continues to evolve, with planning staff preparing to return to the council in the fall with proposed changes to the wireless ordinance that "more objectively weight different objective criteria while also imparting additional subjective criteria," according to a report from the Department of Planning and Development Services.
"I think that there is a frustration on the council that we're not being able to judge these applications based upon the subjective standards that we expect to get in the coming months," Vice Mayor Pat Burt said. "Absent that, we're faced with a narrow legal determination … on whether the case for denial can be made on the basis of the other issues that the appellant raised."
Four of the six council members present concluded that they cannot make that determination. Council member Alison Cormack, who made the motion to reject the appeal and approve the Verizon plan, concurred with all her colleagues that the company failed to meet the noticing requirements and attached a condition mandating additional outreach to Channing House. But she, Burt and council members Eric Filseth and Greg Tanaka also backed Planning Director Lait's decision, allowing Verizon to proceed with the project.
"I don't feel it's conclusive enough to uphold the appeal," Filseth said, referring to the design issues raised by United Neighbors.