How to get a cell tower approved in seven easy steps

Rancho Palos Verdes currently has 140 cell towers in the public right of way.  It’s an astronomically high number, one for every 300 residents.  Yet cell coverage is still terrible, go figure.  You can see their location and access photos on RPV’s new GIS portal here.  Most examples are just awful, it’s clear the cheapest possible installation was thrown up.  That will change with RPV’s new wireless ordinance.

With all these sites and dozens more planned for both RPV and Palos Verdes Estates, we’ve gotten quite an education regarding the tactics used to get these sites approved.  Since pretty much no one wants one of these eyesores near their home, the cell tower companies need to get creative to sneak these things in before residents wise up to what is actually happening.

Here’s the list so far, consider this a public service announcement.  Every one of these tactics has been recently documented in RPV or PVE.

Step 1: The Harmless Encroachment Permit

Pretty simple, the installer pulls encroachment permits to work in the right of way without filing for antenna permits. This gets the network backbone in place before residents know what’s planned, can figure out what is going on, and get organized.  It’s effective.  Antennas aren’t publicly announced until the last minute leaving residents scrambling.  RPV’s new ordinance prohibits this tactic; it was commonplace there and still occurs in PVE.

You’ll know your neighborhood has been targeted long before you hear anything about cell towers when these things start showing up uninvited on your street.  It’s sort of like the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

crown castle vault

Step 2: The Permanent “Mock-Up”

ugly crown castle streetlight

Cell towers used to be mocked-up using “storypoles”, a clearly temporary installation that would show the location, profile and size of a proposed site.  Something like the flags required before building a structure.  Now the cell tower companies claim an entitlement to install the actual installation as the mock-up.  It’s akin to someone demanding to first build a new home and then asking the community what they think about it afterwards.

It seems harmless, but it’s a tactic designed to create a sense of inevitability.  Residents are busy, and if they see an actual permanent installation they’ll likely (and wrongly) assume the installation was already approved and it’s too late to do anything.  RPV’s new ordinance now prohibits this tactic.

This installation, including a brand new streetlight embedded in concrete, was installed as a “mock-up” on Silver Spur.

Have doubts that a new 25 foot streetlight encased in a cubic yard of fresh concrete constitutes a “mock-up”?  Well, here’s what the posted sign said.

crown castle mock-up

Step 3: The Coy Construction Crew

Alert residents in PVE recently asked a crew what they were up to as they dug a hole in front of their house.  “Installing a streetlight” was the reply.  Apparently these guys didn’t know that PVE doesn’t allow streetlights.  A quick review of the plans revealed it was for a cell tower.  Similar incidents have taken place across the peninsula, with a variety of false and deceptive answers.   “Improving your broadband choices” is the nominee for the most creative yet least informative answer.  The streetlight bit seems to be the favorite, and it’s trotted out often.  These guys appear to be genuinely good guys, who are polite, and work hard.  We’re not so sure about those who put them up to it.

Watch for the white trucks with an American flag emblem on the door.  This one just happened to be at work when the Google photo-car came through town.

cell tower construction crew

Step 4: The Blurry Photo Simulation

We’ve seen this one over and over.  For some strange reason, cell tower companies seem to only hire really terrible graphic artists.  Good help is hard to find, we suppose.  Watch for all the same tricks, low resolution photos, poor lighting and contrast, blurry smudges supposedly representing installed equipment, and strategically placed shadows.

Here’s a typical example, you can hardly see the equipment box mounted on the pole and the ground mounted box next to the block wall is invisible.

cell tower photo simulation


Step 5: The Misleading Photo Simulation

The blurry photo simulation’s close relative.  Equipment mounted on the pole is shown much smaller and lower than actuality, highly intrusive and ugly cable “rat’s nests” are missing, the antennas are too small or spaced too close to the pole, and other items are just flat-out missing.  Funny how these “errors” never seem to show things larger and more intrusive than they actually are.

Here’s a good example in front of Hesse Park in RPV, this one stands proudly right outside the City Council chambers.

cell tower misleading photo simulation

Step 6: The “NTS” (not to scale) drawings

The cell tower companies seem to have the same trouble hiring competent draftsmen that they do with graphic artists.  NTS means “not to scale” and the submitted drawings are littered with this seemingly unassuming acronym.  POS would be more appropriate.  While the dimensions on the drawing may be correct (though not always), the drawings are often distorted with added equipment shown smaller and lower than actuality.  Or, in a clever twist, the structure the equipment will be mounted on (such as a residential streetlight) is shown larger than actuality in order to make the equipment look smaller by comparison.  We only wish these guys were as creative in their cell tower designs as they are in their drawings.

Here’s a residential streetlight example submitted to RPV.  The drawing on the left was the “NTS” submission.  The drawing on the right was drawn to scale by a resident using the actual dimensions in the drawing package.  RPV’s new ordinance requires drawings be to scale and prepared by a registered engineer.

cell tower misleading drawing

Step 7: The Franchise Fee

File this under the Orwellian “public/private partnership”.  We prefer a less flattering description.  The idea here is to make the City a “partner” with the cell tower companies by paying the city rent for use on the right of way, typically 5% of the tower revenue.  Both RPV and PVE have these agreements.  The cell tower companies are under no obligation to pay anything for ROW use so their benevolent willingness to do so is a win for the City, right?  Perhaps.  On the other hand, it creates a financial incentive for the City to approve towers.  More towers equals more revenue.

Is this really a good idea?  These towers are regulated to protect our City’s aesthetics and neighborhood character.  At a minimum, the franchise fee creates an appearance of a conflict of interest, even if none exists.  It’s time to ditch the agreements; they are bad for RPV and PVE.


There’s more but we’ll save that for a future post.


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