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San Rafael, Calif., Officials Work to Tighten 5G Regulation

Amid concerns that the next-generation wireless technology poses health risks for residents, the Marin County city moved to limit 5G's rollout ahead of an FCC ruling that takes effect in January.

(TNS) — Amid concerns that a new federal policy usurps local control, the San Rafael City Council agreed this week to draft an urgency ordinance to regulate the rollout of the next-generation wireless network known as 5G.

After more than three hours of deliberation and public comment on Monday, the council voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Maribeth Bushey absent, directing staff to work with a subcommittee to draft the ordinance. The new law would impose tighter restrictions on the installation of small cell antennas. A September ruling by the Federal Communications Commission, which takes effect Jan. 14, limits local authority over the issue.

“I want the city and county government to clearly say no to the FCC,” said resident Arthur Saftlas. “No 5G installations of any kind in Marin, until it can be proven safe for us and the environment.”

Saftlas was among the more than 30 speakers who voiced concerns about the potential health risks associated with radio frequency emissions. The FCC ruling pre-empts local control over making decisions based on concerns about emissions, so long as those radio frequency emissions are compliant with FCC’s rules.

Kentfield resident and San Rafael business owner Ruth Weizman challenged the council, asking, “If the city must choose between the health and safety of its residents and a law that prohibits considering our health and safety, what are you going to choose?”

She said, “Let me help to remind you, your primary job … as our public servants, is to protect the health and safety of the public. Everything else is secondary.”

The city has had a longstanding telecommunications ordinance that was last updated in 2014. The proposed urgency ordinance, however, would specifically address small cell antennas.

Under the FCC’s new policy, local jurisdictions will be allowed to charge no more than $270 per year per cell site in access fees. The FCC rules also set strict timelines for granting approvals for antennas, requiring cities and counties to act on applications for deployments on existing structures within 60 days. Applications for entirely new installations must be acted on within 90 days.

Consulting attorney Michael Johnston, of Telecom Law Firm, said that any ordinance adopted by a local jurisdiction would have to pass what he called a “three-pronged test” in order to avoid potential litigation. Regulations have to be considered reasonable, or technically feasible; the regulation would have to be no more burdensome than those imposed on similar infrastructure; and it would have to be based on objective rules and published in advance.

The primary selling point of the 5G technology is speed. Supporters say it will provide download speeds to mobile devices faster than what many Americans receive on their home internet connections.

Chris Villegas, a community development associate with Verizon Wireless, said the company has no 4G or 5G deployment plans for San Rafael. The company has deployed the technology in cities like San Francisco and Cupertino. He showed photo examples of how the company has been able to work with city leaders to conceal radios and antennas on utility poles matching the aesthetic of the respective areas. He said the company would be willing to do the same in San Rafael.

But residents countywide have been urging their local leaders to block the proliferation of the technology. Ross, Mill Valley, San Anselmo and Fairfax have all adopted urgency ordinances to tighten rules, while officials of each jurisdiction continue to explore ways to make them stronger. Last month, Marin County joined several cities and counties across the U.S. in a legal challenge to FCC’s policies. The Town of Fairfax has also joined the fray but with a different coalition of municipalities.

In San Rafael, residents urged the council to strengthen its ordinance with rules addressing accessibility requirements, the impact on property values, requiring frequent monitoring and other restrictions that match other Marin ordinances. Residents also implored the city to join the legal fight. In response, the council asked staff to work with the subcommittee to address those recommendations.

Councilman Andrew McCullough said, “I’ve heard some people who were afraid to come here this evening. What they tell me is they don’t share the health concerns and they want to see more and more access.”

“We have to consider that perspective as well,” he said.

Councilman John Gamblin said until the health effects are known, he is interested in adopting the most strict rules possible.

“If we’re going to push it, then let’s push it as far as we can,” he said.

The council will consider the urgency ordinance at its Dec. 17 meeting.

©2018 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.