Small Cell Towers in San Mateo

 

June 12, 2018   SMPNA Cover Letter to City Council   RE: Wireless Facilities Ordinance

San Mateo Park Neighborhood Association endorses the adoption of the proposed ordinance: CHAPTER 17.10 “WIRELESS COMMUNICATIONS FACILITIES IN THE PUBLIC RIGHT-OF-WAY”

Attached is a document laying out our reasons for having voted to endorse.  It frames the choice in front of the Council, including the external constraints on your jurisdiction, as well as the strengths of this ordinance at a time when telecom applications are rolling in, in the main unfettered by local interests.

SMPNA assisted Public Works in crafting an ordinance that provides considerable requirements for public notification and input, protection of trees and aesthetic considerations, and substantially more time for Public Works to evaluate and negotiate telecom firms’ requests.  We attended and spoke at 4 Public Works Commission meetings and met separately with staff.

We commend the Public Works Department and the Public Works Commission on the progress they’ve made.  This ordinance puts the rights of residents on a more equal standing than FCC and State regulations otherwise allow.

We encourage the City to expand its communications program with the objective that no residents find themselves blindsided by a notice from a telecom firm, because the City’s outreach will have been so robust.

Our objectives include seeing that:

  • Validated needs for transmission improvements are achieved with installation of towers that are as few as required to achieve better coverage.

  • Cell towers that are installed must be as compact, cleanly designed, concealed, camouflaged and shrouded as possible.

  • Residents of San Mateo be given every opportunity to get involved in the process and be given advance notice of proposed installations in their area.

Overall, we believe this is a strong ordinance that, when coupled with Design & Engineering standards, will serve the residents of San Mateo. 

Please adopt this ordinance as soon as possible.  Please let us know if we can be helpful in any way.

Board of Directors      San Mateo Park Neighborhood Association   Board@SanMateoPark.org

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SMPNA input to City Council on Wireless Facilities Ordinance

Problem Statement

The FCC along with California State regulations have greatly constrained local control over the installation of wireless equipment in the Public Right of Way.

  • The FCC has mandated that no consideration of radiation or health considerations can be factors in placement of equipment.

  • The FCC has mandated that no jurisdiction can question the type/make of equipment to be used as long as it complies with FCC standards.

  • The FCC has mandated a “shot clock” for decisions:

    • Additional information from applicants can only be requested within the first 30 days after an application.

    • Decisions (in most cases) must be made within 150 days or the application is deemed approved.

    • Telecom firms know these rules and take advantage of them. In late February, Verizon submitted 23 applications over a 3-day period, making it impossible for PW staff to review them in the first 30 calendar days, considering there were also multiple applications already in the queue for final approval.

  • The only way to regain meaningful local control in San Mateo is for City Council to pass an ordinance laying out the criteria for doing installations in San Mateo.

  • The FCC and State recognize that with an ordinance, and only with an ordinance, local jurisdictions can control the time, manner and place of installations. An ordinance allows consideration of factors such as noise, blocking traffic, unsafe conditions, and importantly, the aesthetics of the installation.

Benefits of the Ordinance

This proposed ordinance provides substantial benefits to the residents of San Mateo, among them:

  • Notification in advance to residents within 500 feet of upcoming applications

  • A requirement for telecom firms to hold a public meeting for each application if requested by the nearby residents. Such a meeting would include a mock-up of the proposed equipment.

  • Additional time to negotiate with telecom firms:

    • Applications are not considered accepted until after a pre-submission conference, notification of residents has been completed, and a local meeting conducted if requested.

    • Requests for additional information stop the clock running until the additional information is provided and accepted.

    • This additional time can be used to work with residents on locations and placement.

  • City definition of preferred placement locations. Examples:

    • Business districts are preferred over residential.

    • Towers should not be placed directly outside resident windows.

    • Towers should not be placed near schools, day care centers, etc.

  • City insistence on the least intrusive configurations of the various equipment options through its “Design and Engineering Standards,” which by reference in the ordinance, also have the force of law:

    • Undergrounding equipment would be less intrusive than a green box on the sidewalk

    • Smaller equipment boxes are preferable to larger boxes.

  • Considerable deference to cities by the court system in time/manner/place decisions, so these are strong legs on which to stand requisite findings.

  • Testing of radiation levels at installation and periodically thereafter.

  Why This Ordinance Now?

  • ·The decision today is whether to provide the residents of San Mateo the types of protections and involvement that they have requested.

    • We think this ordinance provides immense benefits compared to the alternative of not having an ordinance.

    • We can see that there may be opportunities to tweak the ordinance to improve it. However, having an ordinance in place, and taking six months or so to see how it’s working, is a better approach than aiming for perfection now and delaying the ordinance.

    • There have been 52 applications submitted since last Fall. There were 23 submitted within 3 days in late February by Verizon. There have been 4 submitted in the last month. There are at least 5 active applicants .

  • Every month lost in postponing an ordinance results in more installations guided by state and FCC regulations and NOT by San Mateo preferences.

  • We share the principle that the ordinance should be as restrictive as possible en route to accommodating residents’ need for better cell coverage. If this aim can be furthered with dispatch by means of some tightening now, let’s do that. However, the proposed ordinance accomplishes protections for time, manner and place on how cell towers are installed, where we have almost none now.

  • We previously had some concerns about the distribution of authority among City Council, Public Works Commission, and Public Works Department in making changes, and about the transparency of the change process. But given the uncertainties accompanying the limited experience to date, as well as the tight time frames built into regulation, the proposed balance of adaptability / agility with oversight and control seems appropriate for now.

  • ·Many residents are deeply concerned about the health risks of radiation from cell towers, and understandably so, given that FCC rulings are based on science that is 20 years old. However, the FCC prohibits local jurisdictions from even considering health concerns in deciding on cell tower placement. Activism on this front is beyond City of San Mateo control and needs be targeted at State and Federal levels to achieve change. Until then, these concerns that are outside of your jurisdiction should not constitute grounds for postponement of an ordinance that does address areas that are within your jurisdiction.

  • The end-around of constructing an ordinance to be so strict that it “effectively prohibits” any cell tower placements at all has been dispatched with under the Federal Communications Act of 1996 and has proven to be unproductive.

  • San Mateo Public Works has given this measure substantial thought and received significant input from residents as well as domain-specific, expert advice from outside counsel. Public Works Commission has had several forums for listening to resident concerns.

  • Adopting this ordinance initiates protections for San Mateo residents as the expansion of cell coverage continues.

  • We urge the Council to direct the Public Works Department and Commission to report back to you no later than February 2019 with an overall evaluation of the ordinance’s functioning in service to the citizens of San Mateo, with an update on their experience with the ordinance.

We strongly support adoption of this ordinance.   Recognizing the uncertainties and learning experiences to come with the rollout of small cell tower technology here, we also urge you to monitor and reassess this ordinance, with opportunity for citizen input, no later than February 2019. 

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For background:

SMPNA Previous letter to San Mateo Park REsidents.  

Since the June 4th email below, many issues have been improved.  Our goal was to make it clear:  Banning cell towers in San Mateo is not possible.  FCC and State regulations explicitly prohibit any consideration of radiation and health concerns when a telecom application is being reviewed.  The City can provide protections regarding the timing, manner and placement of small cell antennas.  

We're including this letter only to show continuity.  

City Council to Address Small Cell Tower Ordinance 6/4/18

San Mateo City Council will be addressing a new ordinance that provides more local control over installation of wireless equipment in San Mateo.  Without this, FCC and State regulations greatly limit the city's ability to negotiate with telecom firms.  SMPNA worked with Public Works to craft an ordinance that provides considerable requirements for public notification and input, protection of trees and aesthetic considerations, and substantially more time for Public Works to evaluate and negotiate telecom firms’ requests.
City Council will address this issue at an upcoming Monday meeting, hopefully June 18.

SMPNA Objectives

SMPNA activities concerning San Mateo’s development of an ordinance regulating cell tower installations are described below. 

  • Recognizing the Park has some of the worst cell coverage in the City, our aim is to see that any validated needs for transmission improvements are achieved with installation of towers that are as few as required to achieve better coverage.   

  • Cell towers that are installed must be as compact, cleanly designed, concealed, camouflaged and shrouded as possible. 

  • We encourage our members to get informed, track developments, and voice your opinions to the City as this matter moves forward to the City Council soon.   

We had outlined this issue in our recent newsletter.  See cell tower extract here. 

Without an ordinance, FCC regulations restrict local authority
Adopting a serviceable ordinance that is as strict as possible is key to having some local control over what the telecoms install in our neighborhood.  FCC requirements favor the telecom industry, giving them wide authority to install small cell towers in the public right of way - -our sidewalks and islands.
FCC leaves local governments only limited jurisdiction related to the application process, specific site selection, tower design and aesthetics.  Absent local ordinances addressing those issues, the telecoms have almost carte blanche on installations.    Applications for these installations are being filed, although not yet for the Park, so without an ordinance we are exceedingly vulnerable to intrusive installations that compromise the character of our lovely neighborhood.

SMPNA teamed with San Mateo Public Works

We invested considerable time working with Public Works Department staff, the City Attorney, and ultimately the Public Works Commissioners.  With input and valuable assistance from a group of interested Park neighbors, we thoroughly reviewed draft ordinances prior to all Public Works Commission meetings.  We submitted areas that we felt needed strengthening or were omitted.  We provided many references to strong ordinances already adopted in California to model what could be done.  We are pleased that the Public Works Department acknowledged our significant contributions at the Commission meeting and Public Works Staff addressed many of our concerns.

Our primary areas of focus and impact

- Pre-application and application process requirements are more detailed and stringent, giving the City more tools to protect its residents. 
- Whereas preliminary drafts notified nearby neighbors of a planned installation only after conditional approval by the City, early neighbor notification and neighbor meeting if requested are now required before Public Works will even accept a telecom’s permit request.
- Mock-ups of proposed installations that will better allow residents to assess the impact of a proposed installation now are to be made available to residents as part of the early neighbor notice process.
- Tree protection was added to the ordinance.
- Undergrounding of all ancillary equipment other than antennas is prioritized as the preferred installation approach.
- More robust and detailed requirements for design/camouflage/shrouding of above ground equipment were added, all aimed at the least intrusive installations and protecting neighborhood aesthetics. 

In addition to these and other amendments to the proposed ordinance, we advocated the City hire outside consultants to provide needed telecommunications technical and legal expertise and workload support.  (This recommendation should impose no cost to the City’s tax-payers as telecoms are charged for expenses associated with their applications.)
Throughout, we advocated that the City implement a proactive communication strategy and intensive process for public outreach and input. 

Public Works created a website to outline the work being done, the most recent versions of documents, and the status and location of applications (now at 50).https://www.cityofsanmateo.org/3865/Small-Cell-Infrastructure

Still more to do

While we have come a considerable way toward a serviceable and reasonably strict protective ordinance, there are areas we still want to see addressed more fully.  An important example is incorporating a requirement for independent verification that a coverage gap in service actually exists – because this condition is the gatekeeper that allows telecoms to install small cell towers and precludes cities from denying them.   It is not prudent to allow telecoms either to sidestep this demonstration or to take their word for it.

Open issues

The ordinance does not address concerns about radiation from cell towers.   FCC regulations deem these towers safe and explicitly preclude consideration of radiation’s health effects in approval or denial of these installations.  That does not negate people's concerns, but it does mean activism on this front is beyond City of San Mateo control and must be targeted at State and Federal levels.

This ordinance is not perfect.  There are additional issues, but we focused on those that were feasible to address in time for last week’s Public Works Commission meeting,  Their proposed ordinance is now being advanced to the City Council where we have an opportunity to work further improvements.

The aim is to get the best possible ordinance, rather than leave us exposed without an ordinance that protects local interests.

Your Board of Directors
San Mateo Park Neighborhood Association

June 4, 2018

NOTE: the above correspondence has been superseded by later developments at the top of this column.