A high-wire act on accommodating wireless
By Lou Fancher
With Federal Communications Commission guidelines regulating local approval of certain types of wireless facilities dating back to 1996, Lafayette -- like many cities -- is wrestling to accommodate 21st century technology.
The public wants digital access without gaps, but not a cell tower's unsightly aesthetics. And scientists cannot agree as to whether prolonged exposure to radio frequency emissions is harmful or not.
Residents and wireless company representatives at an Aug. 26 meeting to review proposed revisions to the standards for Lafayette's wireless communication facilities learned that even a simple inventory of the city's existing cell towers and other wireless facilities wasn't conclusive. Planning Technician Anthony Arrivas said an inventory of the city's 23 wireless communication facilities was 99 percent accurate; Associate Planner Michael Cass said errors and omissions might exist in the records, and that input from the community would be welcome. And trailing a detailed tally of each location's equipment, staff said "stealth facilities" designed to camouflage sites were counted, but not entered.
T-Mobile had yet to respond to requests for information, but Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Metro PCS and other providers had replied, after some delays and difficulty, according to Cass.
But at that Aug. 26 meeting of the Lafayette Planning and Building Department's Wireless Communications Facilities Subcommittee, residents and wireless company representatives eagerly shared their conflicting perspectives.
Kevin Grennan, representing Verizon, objected to "religious site restrictions" in the draft ordinance because church properties are often close to wireless customers and have structures that mask wireless equipment, making them ideal locations. He said public notifications of new installations should not be more restrictive than permitting for non-wireless applications.
"Truth be told, we're in a hurry to get sites in places where there is demand. We're in a competitive business," he said.
But resident Margaret Mew was concerned about radio frequency emissions from Smart Meters, and questioned why the meters are exempt from permitting. "Why open yourself to potential liability when these things are proven to be dangerous?" she asked.
Lafayette is bound to follow federal law, which is based on the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In an e-mail, Cass said, "The City Attorney's Office indicated that there is potential risk (to) adopting any regulations that would limit or prohibit wireless communications facilities solely based on concerns about radio frequency emissions."
Left with aesthetic, zoning and General Plan standards (and the ordinance's stated preference for "co-location" of multiple sites of equipment at existing sites) to guide permitting for wireless facilities, Cass said adding prohibitions beyond the ordinance's current standards could cause problems. Referencing "discouraged" sites like schools and religious facilities, Cass said treating all applicants consistently was essential.
Jennifer Devinney told the subcommittee she was disappointed by what seems like an effort by the city to avoid a lawsuit. "Set a precedent; say Lafayette is a pioneer," she suggested.
City Councilman Brandt Andersson, chairman of the Planning and Building Department's Wireless Communications Facilities Subcommittee, said the city is frequently threatened with lawsuits, but that with an FCC law in place, "we need to stay inside of that."
The wireless subcommittee agreed to draft a letter to the League of California Cities proposing cities join to ask the state to look at FCC standards. Cass, anticipating the FCC will issue its final rules sometime this year, said the subcommittee will wait for that outcome before finalizing any revisions to its wireless ordinance.