San Diego to Review 5G Antenna Rules After Resident Backlash

The comprehensive review was prompted by complaints last month about a proposal from city staff that would have updated the regulations primarily based on federal law.

by David Garrick, The San Diego Union-Tribune / June 3, 2019
Shutterstock/kriangphrom

(TNS) — San Diego is launching a rigorous review of its cellular antenna regulations in response to some residents’ complaints and pressure from the industry for rules that will allow the rapid roll-out of advanced 5G technology.

The wireless industry has touted advanced 5G technology, which is expected to be unveiled nationwide next year, for its ability to boost data capacity, speed up performance and lengthen device battery life.

A new federal law took effect Jan. 1 that requires San Diego and other cities to loosen some rules for cell towers, while speeding up approval times and lower fees. The cities keep their rights to regulate the visual impact and safety of cell towers, but in a “reasonable” way.

The San Diego Planning Commission is scheduled to debate the issues Thursday, including how to minimize cell towers’ visual impact and how much public input to allow on each cell tower proposal.

The comprehensive review was prompted by complaints last month about a proposal from city staff that would have updated the regulations primarily based on the new federal law.

Backlash from residents, particularly in historic areas like Kensington, and concerns from industry officials prompted the commission on May 9 to reject those proposed updates and request a more neighborhood-friendly approach.

Commissioners agreed with residents that the latest generation of cell antennas, sometimes called “small cells” because they aren’t as large as the previous towers, still damage neighborhood aesthetics and sometimes create safety issues.

“I think they are ugly and they are ominous, and if there’s going to be a lot more they (will be) a visual blight,” Commissioner James Whalen said.

Small cells, sometimes called a “distributed antenna system,” first emerged in 2014 as an alternative to larger, more conspicuous cell towers. In such a system, a group of smaller antennas with more limited ranges transmits the same cell data as one large antenna would.

The antennas, about the size of a pizza box, are placed a block or so apart along streets and at public facilities. Typically they are mounted on telephone poles and street lights.

Planning Commissioner Vicki Granowitz said the small cells haven’t solved the problem of visual impact as well as some had hoped.

“While these may be on the poles, there still has to be some better design guidelines to figure out ways to make them not so obvious and not so ugly,” she said. “They really are disgusting.”

So the commission unanimously requested city staff to explore regulations in other cities regarding the small cells’ safety and visual impact, particularly the types of poles used and any impact on travel in public rights of way.

In addition, commissioners said they want to evaluate the approval process for cell antennas to determine how many public hearings should be held for each proposal and related details.

While the new federal law and some previous state laws limit the city’s discretion, members of City Attorney Mara Elliott’s staff told the commission they can still regulate aesthetics, safety and health – with conditions.

On health, the city can’t adopt regulations related to the radio frequency waves used by cell phones, they said. Those waves have been potentially linked to cancer, autism and diabetes, some residents said.

On aesthetics and safety, Deputy City Attorney Melissa Ables said San Diego can regulate the visual impact of cell antennas as long as the regulations are “reasonable” and the city’s criteria are objective and published in advance.

Residents urged the city to look at legislation in other cities and counties, particularly in Northern California. Last fall, Mill Valley voted to ban 5G cell antennas from residential neighborhoods.

Lisa Sinclair, who lives in Kensington, said the antennas would degrade her historic neighborhood, where there are no telephone poles and street lights are of the old-fashioned variety to provide ambience.

More than 700 residents in Kensington and neighboring Talmadge have signed a petition urging the city to seek local control over cell antennas, particularly their visual impacts. One Kensington resident suggested cell antennas would lower property values 10% to 20%.

Some other residents of the neighborhood raised concerns about the potential health effects of cell antennas, but federal law prohibits the city from considering those.

Industry officials posed different concerns. They complained they hadn’t had time to evaluate the city staff’s proposed regulations and suggested some language should be tweaked.

“It would not be surprising if the city’s analysis might differ from the analysis of the industry,” said John Osborne, an AT&T official. “Usually it’s a fairly simple matter of language.”

The new federal law, in addition to requiring faster approvals for antennas, limited how much cities and counties can charge the wireless industry to place antennas on public facilities and in rights-of-way. Depending on a variety of factors, the maximum number of days a city can take to approve a proposed antenna is between 60 and 150 days.

Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in City Hall, 202 C St.

©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.