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Small Cell Ordinance Ruffles Feathers in San Diego County

A vote to adopt an ordinance to comply with federal 5G rules was met with frustration from supervisors, industry and the public. Among other things, the county will require the submission of annual radio frequency reports.

(TNS) — The San Diego County Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance Wednesday amending zoning standards to accommodate for small cell wireless facilities, to comply with the federally-mandated rollout of 5G wireless networks — much to the frustration of industry representatives, community members and the county supervisors.

The amended ordinance now includes three recommendations made by the county Planning Commission: that small cell wireless facilities be required to submit annual radio frequency reports for wireless carriers, that they comply with the FCC’s maximum permissible exposure requirements for radio frequency emissions, and that they post signs at facilities warning of radio frequency emissions.

Supervisors declined to adopt three other recommendations from the commission because they might have violated federal law. The rejected recommendations include requiring small cell facilities in the public right-of-way to have a 100-foot setback from all residential buildings and requiring wireless carriers to submit master plans for placement of the equipment.

“In the end, the bulk of the recommendations for consideration today are the best that we can do,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob, chair of the board.

“I feel strongly about that, and I feel that to do nothing would be an injustice to the people in the unincorporated area.... We have pushed these requirements as far as possible based on the working parameters we must legally follow.”

The board’s action comes as municipalities across the country are grappling with a new federal law that rips away much of local governments’ ability to regulate the location of small cell wireless facilities.

A federal law passed last year to accelerate the spread of 5G requires San Diego and other municipalities to loosen some rules for cell towers, speed up approval times and lower fees associated with building out the network. The law also prevents municipalities from regulating the location of towers for health reasons, allowing them to regulate the towers’ visual impact and safety in a “reasonable” way.

Sometimes referred to as a “distributed antenna system,” small cell antennas which support 5G technology are typically a little larger than a lunch box and mounted on top of streetlights or poles. They serve as an alternative to larger, traditional cell towers.

In the small cell system a group of small antennas with more limited range transmits the same cell data as one large tower. However, far more of the small antennas are needed compared to the large towers.

Industry officials say the small cells are needed for advanced 5G technology, which they say boosts data capacity and speed and lengthens device battery life.

Opponents worry that the radio frequency emissions could prove a health risk, in addition to potentially obstructing views, harming neighborhood aesthetics and bringing down property values.

“If we do not exercise great caution now we will lose the beauty that invites residents and tourists alike to San Diego,” said Rancho Santa Fe resident Holly Manion, a realtor.

“San Diego County possesses a unique beauty preserved through the years. I’m here to tell you, we are about to lose what this community as a whole has worked hard for over time.”

Some residents and industry members were unhappy with the ordinance. Residents said they wanted more restrictions and some industry members worried about too many restrictions and encouraged supervisors to send the ordinance back to the Planning Commission.

“These specific rules will dictate whether San Diegans will have access to reliable high-speed 5G technologies that are just around the corner or whether San Diegans will be filled with frustrations of slow data and dropped calls,” said Mary Hamilton, a Sprint Network project manager.

“More importantly, if left in the current state, the ordinance you’re considering today may cripple the next generation communications that 5G will make available to first responders in times of emergency and to normal citizens in times of emergencies.”

The supervisors stressed their frustration at the federal government for infringing on their right to regulate local land use especially as it relates to health concerns.

“We share your frustration; this is just crazy,” Supervisor Jim Desmond told the audience. “We can’t do a damn thing here to help protect our own residents, for aesthetics, for health or hardly anything else.”

Jacob, whose district includes the largest portion of the county’s unincorporated area, promised the county would continue to fight against the FCC law.

The county filed an amicus brief earlier this year, joining other cities, counties and states opposing the FCC law. The county also signed on to support two legislative efforts to undo the law in the U.S. House and Senate.

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