Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On April 20 the Albany City Council approved a revised wireless ordinance that does not allow antennas in residential districts but sent an alternate version that does allow antennas in residential neighborhoods back to the Planning & Zoning Commission to clarify some points, with the intent that the council will vote on that version in the near future.

The number of those who spoke in favor of antennas in residential neighborhoods at the meeting was approximately equal to the number who were opposed. Those who want to keep away from our homes and schools need to speak out in greater numbers -- by emails, phone calls, in-person meetings with council members and planning commissioners, letters to the editor of local papers, and, most important, showing up at the meetings where the ordinance allowing antennas in residential neighborhoods will be discussed in the near future. 

There will likely be a Planning & Zoning Commission hearing in May or June on the ordinance that allows antennas in front of homes, and a council hearing in June, July, or September.  We'll let you know the dates as soon as we know them.

In the meantime, the most important thing to do is let as many people as possible know about the proposed change.  Tell your neighbors and other parents in your child's school. 

One other note: the Contra Costa Times and Albany Journal articles this past weekend were incorrect in stating that prohibiting antennas in residential neighborhoods violates federal law. The reverse is true: federal law explicitly gives cities the right to regulate where antennas can and cannot go as long as a city does not prohibit wireless service altogether.  Many cities restrict where wireless antennas can be located, and Albany has done so for the past 10 years with no legal challenges to that part of our regulations. We've asked the reporter who wrote that story to publish a correction.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A comment letter from an Albany resident and engineer on the proposed changes to Albany's wireless ordinance (see previous post for information about the changes):

A comment letter from Albany resident Ed Fields:
April 19, 2015
From: Ed Fields
To: Albany City Council
Re: Amendments to Wireless Communication Facilities Ordinance

Dear Councilmembers,

I urge you to adopt Ordinance No 2015-03, which continues the prohibition of wireless facilities in residential districts.

There is no question that the City can continue to prohibit wireless communication facilities (cell antennas) in its residential districts.  The Federal Government specifically states (at 47USC332(c)7, Preservation of local zoning authority):

“Except as provided in this paragraph, nothing in this chapter shall limit or affect the authority of a State of local government or instrumentality thereof over decisions regarding the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities.”

The exceptions listed are to not discriminate among providers, and to ”not prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services,” and to not regulate “on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the Commission’s regulations concerning such emissions.”

In line with the above, the City has, and can continue to allow cell antennas only in some zoning districts.  In the draft “Planning and Zoning Commission Resolution # 2015-03” prepared by staff for the February 25, 2015 Commission meeting, the prohibition against wireless communication facilities in residential zones was continued, based on this finding:

2. General Plan Consistency
Finding: The proposed amendments are consistent with the General Plan.
Evidence: The placement of wireless facilities in commercial and mixed use zoning districts preserves the residential character of the City.

The City also cannot regulate wireless communication facilities on the basis of technology.  So it is not clear that we can allow only one type of cellular technology to be used in residential zones, and that we would be able to prohibit other technologies if the carriers wanted to use them.

The City can also regulate based on the design and construction of wireless facilities.  Note the appearance of the pole-mounted equipment in the sample photos provided in the Staff Report.  The antennas themselves add to the height of the pole, and the supporting equipment must be located below the cable and phone wires.  And see the comments below, which I have transcribed from the February 25 Commission meeting.

The City now seems to have good cell coverage by all of the providers.  There is a table of Existing Facilities in the Staff Report.  There are no pending requests from the any of the providers for additional cell antennas.

While the City cannot limit emissions beyond the FCC safety standards for maximum exposure, the smaller antennas used on power poles are not “micro-power” devices as is often stated.  A typical DAS antenna mounted on top of a power pole contains three antennas inside, covering three sectors 120 degrees apart.  They are rated for a maximum power input of about 80% of that of three standard antennas.  (All of the antennas are only operated at a fraction of their maximum input power.)  I would be happy to discuss more of the technical details of how these antennas operate if you are interested.

I want to comment on this part of the Staff Report:

Changes Prepared from Commission Feedback February 25, 2015
The Commission continued the Wireless Ordinance discussion from February 25, 2015 to a date certain of March 25, 2015 and requested that staff include the following additional information:
• Staff clarify Section 20.20.100 (D) (4) (setback distance)
• Return to the Commission with draft Code provisions for Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and include language permitting this infrastructure be permitted in all zoning districts.

I attended both the February 25, 2015 and March 25, 2015 Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, and again watched the wireless discussion of the February 25 meeting on the KALB archived video.  The Commission did not recommend on February 25 to include language permitting antennas in all zoning districts, although they did vote to include it on March 25.

Below are some excerpts from the February 25 meeting which I have transcribed.

Commissioner Donaldson, at 3:39: “I think we should ask staff to sort of add a new section to the ordinance that would discuss small antenna systems and distributed antenna systems and make them legal, and I would say they would be legal in all zoning districts or probably at least in the residential districts along the city right-of-way, along city streets, they go on utility poles, I think, and not on people’s homes….and I’d be in favor of that.”  At 3:42: “I think the High School would be a great location for a large antenna.”

Jeff Bond, at 3:50: “…About the issue of adding, allowing installations in residential districts…We’re not allowed to regulate the type of technology, and I think the idea is that we’re not supposed to give a competitive advantage to one particular carrier who might have a technology that we like, one who might have a DAS system versus somebody else who might not, we’re supposed to give the carriers an equal shot at a zoning district….We’re happy to research that and look into it and present it to you, but I think if it became a big deal, my first reaction is that we’d probably want to recommend let’s just stay with the zoning districts we have now, fix this so that we can comply with federal law, and we can do our jobs more efficiently and come back to that at a later date if we need to.  So certainly happy to take the first step, but just giving you that caution that it might become a big deal.”  Commissioner Donaldson: “I think it might.”  Jeff Bond: “I live in Oakland, the Oakland regulations aren’t particularly good from what I understand, and there are some really unattractive installations that have gone on the utility poles….I don’t know if they’re micro cells or DAS cells, but they’re really ugly, and they’re basically a large set of boxes that are mounted relatively low on the poles below the phone and cable lines which are the lowest lines on the pole.  They’re hung maybe 6 to 7 feet high.  They’re much more in your field.”

Commissioner Donaldson at 3:55: “I don’t think we’re having a lot of complaints about the quality of cell phone coverage now….I think you’re right, that if we, and I would like to do it, I would like to get rid of that residential prohibition.  I don’t see any rational reason for having it, but I also think it would be difficult and would raise a big ruckus, and if we don’t have a problem, and what antennas had been approved are working maybe the best thing is to not pick a fight then.  I don’t know.”  At 3:58: “I would include them in Public Facilities, PF districts everywhere, so I would delete the phrase ‘except on sites occupied by schools and parks with the exception of Albany Hill’ and again I say I don’t think it’s really necessary to go to the mat on that, but that is my opinion.”  At 4:04: “I would like to see it updated to reflect what we know about new technology about distributed antenna systems and small antenna systems, but if that’s going to lead to a huge battle over allowing antenna sites in residential areas, then I’m not necessarily inclined to go there, especially if we don’t have a lot of people who think coverage is terrible, if it’s not necessary to give the industry openings to improve coverage, then let’s stick with what we have.”

Commissioner Kent, at 4:05: “You’re right in the future it might be an issue….”

Anne Hersch, at 4:06: “We basically retain our local zoning authority to prohibit it by district….”

Commissioner Kent, at 4:10:20: “So are we going to vote on this tonight or recommend it?”  Commissioner Donaldson: “No….”

Jeff Bond, at 4:10: “…No action is required, continue it to a future meeting.  We’ll make the edits in response to your discussion….”  Anne Hersch: “I’m hearing we don’t want to tackle residential, but we do want to include some language on DAS and small cell and also come back to you with some examples, visuals of what those facilities look like and possibly what some other cities have done for regulations.”

Commissioner Menotti at 4:11:25: “If it’s allowed with the provisions that you had said [inaudible] …not pick technologies.”  Jeff Bond: “Right, I think we’d probably need to think a little bit about that and come back to you with more information.”  Commissioner Donaldson: “It’s worth some study. I think you should look into it, and then we can decide, and if we leave it out and do nothing about it, at least I think we should transmit to the Council our thinking that this is a coming trend, and needs to be looked at, and would have to be added, and could be added to the Ordinance in a year or two, and that they should be on notice for that.  And maybe try talk to some other cities, and if your experience in Oakland, yours in Berkeley, is that these small antenna systems are really ugly, and they’re intrusive, and they might hum or whatever they do, then that’s not a great solution either.  That’s inviting a problem that we don’t really want.  I will say I was impressed by what the FCC was saying about the growth in cell phone traffic and the huge increase in data needs and the huge reliance on homes and on families on their cell phones, the need for robust coverage.  All that was very impressive on me. I think’ it’s important. I think we should have a robust cell phone network. Ok.  Anything else?”  Jeff Bond: “So then just a motion to continue to March 25?” Commissioner Donaldson: “Ok.”  Motion is made and passed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

City of Albany Proposes Cell Antennas in Front of Homes & Schools


On Monday, April 20, 2015 the Albany City Council will consider new regulations allowing “distributed” cell antennas in residential neighborhoods (including in front of schools) where antennas have been banned since Albany’s wireless code adoption in 2005.         
 ** The Council hearing is Monday, 4/20/15 @ 7:30PM, City Hall, 1000 San Pablo Ave.**
Allowing antennas in residential areas was slipped in at the last minute after 10 months of hearings during which the Planning Commission assured the public that it would not change the cell antenna ban in neighborhoods or at schools.

By making this change, the city would:
-       give up its right under federal law, to say where antennas can & cannot go, opening the whole city to antennas
-       lose control over the number & strength of antennas that could be added to utility poles outside 2nd-story windows throughout the city

The proposed distributed antennas in neighborhoods:
·       are NOT low-power; they can emit hundreds of watts
·       are not needed here (they're for dense urban and other areas with tall obstacles to cell reception)
·       have not been requested in Albany by wireless providers

Albany’s cell coverage is good; every company has 2+ antenna sites. We don’t need more antennas.

If you oppose cell antennas in front of your home or your child’s school, let the City Council know.

Below is a SAMPLE LETTER you can send to the council. Feel free to customize this letter with your own concerns, but please remember that federal law prohibits cities from taking action on cell antennas based on health concerns. If the city receives comments that are based on health concerns, this could leave the council's action open to a legal challenge by wireless companies.


SUBJECT: Opposition to allowing cell antennas in residential neighborhoods

Send your letter to 
with a cc to the city clerk: nalmaguer@albanyca.org

Dear Mayor Maass and Council members,
I am writing to ask you NOT to approve the proposed version of the Albany wireless ordinance that would allow "distributed" (DAS) or "microcell" antennas in residential districts and instead to approve a version of the ordinance that continues the prohibition on antennas in residential neighborhoods and schools.

There are many reasons not to approve antennas in residential neighborhoods, including:

1. DAS antennas are not needed in Albany. As the staff report points out, these antennas are designed for terrain with dense obstacles to cell coverage, not  Albany's flat, low-rise landscape.

2. If the Council opens up residential neighborhoods to cell antennas, it would give up the city's authority to regulate antenna placement under the federal Telecommunications Act. In addition, because of new federal law allowing essentially unlimited co-location of antennas, the city would also lose all control over the number and power of antennas that could be added to residential antenna site once a first set of antennas was installed.

3. The provision allowing cell antennas in residential districts was added at the last minute after nearly 2 years of Planning & Zoning Commission hearings during which DAS antennas were not discussed at all and, as the Commission minutes from the May 14, 2014 hearing state and the Commission and staff repeatedly assured the public, the Commission "did not support antennas in parks, schools or residential areas."

4. The wireless companies have not asked for DAS antennas in Albany. There has been only 1 application for a DAS antenna, which was withdrawn before the city considered it. Cell coverage is good in Albany now, with all carriers having multiple antenna sites. There is no need to "invite" unnecessary antennas into Albany.

5. DAS antennas are not low-power antennas; they emit hundreds of watts of power and would be installed on utility poles outside second-story windows where such an intensive commercial - industrial technology does not belong. 

6. DAS antennas are ugly, adding extra height to utility poles and bulky equipment boxes along with cables and wires.  These antennas on utility poles in front of homes would negatively affect property values.

Thank you for respecting the public's desire to honor Albany's General Plan and preserve our city's residential character by continuing to prohibit cell antennas in our neighborhoods.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Jan. 10 2012 Study Session on New AT&T Antennas at 1035 San Pablo Ave.

AT&T is back with another proposal for 21(!) new cell antennas atop 1035 San Pablo Ave. (across from UC Village and directly behind neighbors on Kains Ave.)

The Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission will hold a study session on the proposed new antennas this Tuesday, Jan. 10 at 7:30 PM at City Hall, 1000 San Pablo Ave.
IF YOU OPPOSE OR ARE CONCERNED ABOUT more antennas at this location, which already has an installation of Sprint/Nextel antennas, IT IS IMPORTANT TO ATTEND THE MEETING OR WRITE TO THE COMMISSION.   AT&T sent a flyer to its customers asking them write in support of the proposal, so the city has received a number of emails favoring the antennas.

This is a study session for the Commission to ask questions and identify any concerns with the application. The Commission does not vote on an application at a study session, but the application could be brought back for a vote as early as the next P&Z meeting on Jan. 24.

The current proposal suffers from the same problems as it did the last time AT&T brought it forward, which means it violates rooftop coverage and possibly also height limits of our general zoning code.

To try to stop site-by-site controversies such as this one, ARROW supports a citywide moratorium on new cell antennas to allow the city to establish one or more city-owned antenna sites located away from homes and schools, from which wireless providers could serve the whole city and where they would be encouraged to locate.  This is a win-win-win idea.  Neighbors would not have to fight, site by site, to keep antennas away from homes and schools;  carriers could have a streamlined application process; and the city would get monthly income from the carriers.

Verizon Sues City of Albany over Antenna Permit Denial

On Dec. 7, 2011 Verizon Wireless sued the City of Albany CA in federal court to try to overturn the city's wireless regulations as well as the City Council's legitimate decision to refuse to allow upgrades of a non-conforming 65-foot cell tower at 423 San Pablo Ave. The tower exceeds the height limit for that zoning district by 17 feet and is located within 15 feet of an apartment balcony.  

ARROW appreciate all the City Council has done to protect Albany neighborhoods from intrusive wireless installations and to minimize their visual and other impacts in commercial districts.  The Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 clearly preserves the zoning authority of local governments, and the Council has made the right decision to fight this lawsuit and protect Albany's right to regulate where cell towers are located, in accordance with the community's values and wishes while still providing excellent wireless service to residents.

ARROW regrets that the city has to waste resources on bully tactics by a wealthy corporation that would like to take away the city's legitimate land use authority.  Not only our city's right to regulate placement of cell sites is at stake in these legal actions, but the rights of all cities with similar ordinances.   

In November, Crown Castle, the tower owner, filed an application to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) asking the commission to overturn the city's decision regarding the antenna permit.  However, appears unlikely that the CPUC will accept this case

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Albany Council Denies Upgrade to 423 San Pablo Cell Tower

On Nov. 7, the Albany City Council voted to deny the proposed expansion of the cell tower at 423 San Pablo Ave. on the basis that this tower was built before the city adopted wireless regulations and does not conform to those regulations, cities have the right to refuse to extend the lives of non-conforming uses as specified in the Albany zoning ordinance, and the only way an exception to the regulations could be granted would be if the applicant demonstrated with a thorough analysis of alternative locations that there is no other feasible site from which service could be provided. The city has been requesting this alternative site analysis from Verizon for more than a year, but Verizon has refused to prepare it.  Verizon is free to apply to locate the new antennas at any site in the city that conforms to our ordinance.  Thanks to all who wrote letters, spoke at the council meeting, and donated to pay for the independent attorney and radio frequency engineer who analyzed Crown Castle/Verizon's documentation.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mon, Nov. 7, 2011 Hearing on New Antennas for 423 San Pablo Cell Tower

The Albany City Council Final Appeal Hearing on New Antennas for 423 San Pablo Ave. cell tower is scheduled for  Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, 7:30 PM at City Hall, 1000 San Pablo Ave.

ARROW opposes any expansion of this tower because adding new antennas would extend its life indefinitely and set a precedent making it very difficult for residents who live near other towers that predate and violate our ordinance to stop the expansion of those facilities.

This tower violates the city's current zoning regulations for wireless towers (it is 17 feet too tall for the zone where it is located and too close to a residence).   The zoning code prohibits expansion of towers such as this, which were built before the city's wireless regulations were adopted and do not meet the requirements of those regulations.

Insist that the city honor its own ordinance and protect our right to site wireless facilities responsibly, away from homes and schools.

Please check back a few days before the hearing for updates on the key issues that will be addressed at this hearing and a sample letter you can send to the City Council opposing expansion of this tower.