A city commission that is reviewing the aesthetics of new development appears to be changing its tune when it comes to cell tower placement.
(TNS) — At a recent meeting, the Palo Alto Architectural Review Board recommended that all but the antennas for seven cell towers Verizon wants to install in the University South neighborhood be placed in underground vaults.
A similar Verizon project approved earlier this year allows equipment for 11 towers in four residential neighborhoods to be stored above ground, even though the board at first recommended the equipment be stored in vaults. It is city policy for new utilities to be placed underground where feasible.
So, what’s the difference this time around?
The earlier project places equipment on telephone poles while the latest project involves placing the equipment onto light poles, which are smaller and less sturdy and might not be able to safety support the weight. The board also is no longer convinced that when Verizon says it can’t place the equipment underground and be in compliance with the city’s noise ordinance and other rules, it is being truthful.
“We took their word for it the first time, but we’re not taking their word for it a second time,” said outgoing Architectural Review Board member Robert Gooyer on Wednesday.
Gooyer said it all comes down to money. It just costs more to place the equipment underground than onto existing poles.
“They’re looking at the least expenditure for the best return,” Gooyer said. “We’re not going to put up with that anymore.”
Added board Vice Chair Peter Baltay, “Verizon has been resistant to provide alternatives; they haven’t made an objective case. I think they’re just playing hardball.”
Crown Castle — which will be leasing the devices to Verizon — will work with city planning staff to find a way to fulfill the board’s recommendation to vault the equipment, according to city planner Amy French, and if it can’t do so, the item could go back to the board for further review or be denied.
“We are actively working with the City of Palo Alto on a positive solution,” Crown Castle representative Sharon James said by email.
The board left open the possibility that Verizon could tweak its plans so that all equipment is concealed above ground in existing infrastructure, but would want to review it again. The clock is running, however, because under a Federal Communications Commission rule, the city has to make a decision on the project by Feb. 7, which is 100 days after the city received the application.
Residents opposed to the towers want them placed underground because they say the devices are unsightly and a health risk. Verizon wants to install a total of 93 towers in city neighborhoods to boost cell service, and a project to install six cell towers in Downtown North is tentatively set to go before the Architectural Review Board on Dec. 20. French said that AT&T is likely to go before the board in February with its own project to install cell devices throughout the city that would be smaller but involve placement onto more poles than Verizon.
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