SB649 Veto, Cell Tower Denials, and the Path Forward

We had quite a week on the cell tower front.  In a huge and stunning victory, Governor Brown vetoed SB649 which would have significantly hindered municipal ability to regulate cell tower design and placement in California.  This was surprising to many and I’m sure the wireless industry is in a state of shock as they have continuously portrayed this legislation as a “done deal”.  So much so, that some were advocating that cities give them want they want now as they would be entitled to it come January 1st (SB649’s effective date).

Thanks to all who contacted the governor and the great work done by California Cities, SCAN NATOA, and other municipal organizations in making our voice heard. The wireless industry will be back, but for now they are licking their wounds.  Savor it while we can.

Governor Brown’s veto message can be found here.  The fact that is was released at the last minute on the last day (literally 11:59 PM on the October 15th deadline) must have driven the wireless industry crazy.  The governor’s rather bland veto message speaks of a need to better “balance” wireless needs with municipal concerns.  Pretty sweet.

Denial of a Residential Neighborhood Cell Tower

Closer to home, the Rancho Palos Verdes Planning Commission denied an intrusive cell tower on a residential cul-de-sac on a 5-0 vote. Crown Castle’s own data showed the site would only serve 29 AT&T customers.

Crown_Castle_ATT_Seaglen_coverage

Crown Castle’s proposed coverage map (blue box) only included 32 homes, the grey shapes shown on the map.  This equates to only 29 AT&T subscribers (32 homes @ 2.6 residents per home times 35% ATT market share).  Such an intrusive site could not be justified for such minuscule coverage, particularly since AT&T service is already sufficient in the neighborhood.

There was great turnout from both the neighborhood and the community at large requesting denial of this cell tower. The highly intrusive aesthetics of this cell tower just couldn’t be justified, and the Commission determined it did not warrant an exception to RPV’s local (residential) street location restrictions. Thanks to all who attended and a particular thanks to those who spoke at the hearing.

The Misleading Photo Simulation Gambit Returns

We saw the reemergence of another old favorite with the misleading photo simulation trick again rearing its ugly head.  We’ve written on this extensively before (link) but it had seemed to improve with recent submissions.  Unfortunately, it’s back with a vengeance and the decision authorities in Palos Verdes need to be educated about this tactic.

Take a look below at the photo simulation submitted versus that of the required mock-up below.  Yet again, we are seeing the antennas shown as far more compact and streamlined rather than the actual bulky boxes that they are.  (Note that the antenna size is accurately shown on the mock-up for comparison).

Crown Castle photo sim error

Comparison of the antenna depiction in the photo simulation (left) to the actual antenna size in the required site mock-up (right).  This has been a consistent problem with Crown Castle’s submissions.  In virtually every case, “errors” in their photo simulations understate the size and intrusiveness of the proposed cell tower.

Back when RPV passed it’s comprehensive wireless ordinance, Crown Castle vehemently complained about the mock-up requirement claiming it was excessive and that photo simulations should be sufficient.  One of RPV’s Council members chastised the Crown Castle lawyer in a public hearing stating that the mock-ups were required based on a demonstrated history of misleading photo simulation submissions.  The wisdom of that requirement has now been proven, and it seems Crown Castle has not learned from it’s past mistakes.

The Wireless Industry’s Business as Usual Days in Palos Verdes are Over

The cell tower companies need to be sent a strong message that our neighborhoods aren’t open to colonization for their highly intrusive money makers. We must force the wireless industry from the start to choose minimally intrusive locations and aesthetically acceptable cell tower designs. Instead what we’ve gotten is cheap and shoddy sites in intrusive locations, no doubt selected to minimize costs with no regard whatsoever for our community.

The string of denials in both Palos Verdes Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes should make clear that the wireless industry’s “business as usual” days in our community are over.  We will fight tooth and nail against any highly intrusive design or location unless it has been clearly demonstrated there is a compelling need and no feasible less intrusive alternative.  Hopefully they are learning a lesson.

Also, we sincerely hope other communities take what we’ve learned to heart.  These guys come in with a bunch of cherry-picked legal citations, out of context entitlement claims, and technical mumbo-jumbo all designed to intimidated municipal Staff and city decision makers.  They count on Staff’s ignorance regarding the actual law with respect to municipal rights and land use authority.  These guys can be fought off but it takes knowledge and a willingness to question and check-out everything they tell you.  Their business model is based on establishing an aura of inevitability, once that is broken down they really don’t know how to react other than with almost comedic bluster.  It’s not very persuasive.

bluster

How not to win friends and influence people

In addition, we are closely watching to ensure any approved site is installed in accordance with the approval conditions, consistent with submitted drawings, and in compliance with building and electrical codes. Approved sites have just started installation on the peninsula and we’ve already flagged serious violations including the installation of an extra utility pole, California electric code violations, and incredibly shoddy workmanship including highly visible cable “rat’s nests” in brand new installations. If Crown Castle continues to let their subcontractor run amuck, then we will insist our City’s code enforcement hold them accountable.  These sites must be red-tagged and power locked out until all violations are corrected.  Again, business as usual for these guys in our community is over.

The Path Forward

This doesn’t mean a prohibition on new cell towers as we recognize better connectivity is desirable for our community. What it does mean is future deployments must be planned our on our terms from the start, not what is quick, cheap, and easy for the cell tower installers. We’ll be working with the peninsula cities to implement a roadmap stressing the following points:

  • Preferred siting zones – These would be commercial and institutional areas, and arterial street locations away from homes. These must be the first choice with residential locations only considered if there is no alternative and there is a clearly demonstrated service need (i.e. a “significant gap”). The cell tower installers need to know from the start that if they try to ram through an intrusive residential neighborhood cell tower to serve 29 people (like they attempted with the site described above), it will almost certainly be denied and result in a huge waste of time, effort, and money.
  • Site designs – In locations where cell towers are preferred, the sites must be minimally observable and no louder than the ambient environment. This means sleek integrated antenna designs into the pole structure itself, not just a bunch of obvious boxy antennas strapped to a pole. It also means underground equipment vaults with no above ground ventilation stacks, and engineered sound minimization/baffling techniques incorporated into the site. Last off, this means completely hidden cable routing and high workmanship standards. Crown Castle (and the rest) may not care what their cell towers look like but we do as we’ll be stuck with them.  No more cheap garbage thrown up haphazardly in our community.
  • Collocation requirements – The days of having four separate cell towers right next to each other for the four major carriers must end. Take a look at the situation shown in the photo below right in front of Saint John Fisher Church for a glaring example of this. We must force the cell tower installers to collocate not only on the same pole but to share equipment to minimize the installation size. They’ve got a million reasons why this is “infeasible” but it’s simply not true. This type of neutral host installation is done all the time in venues like sporting arenas, there is no reason why it can’t be done here.

hall of shame9

Three cell towers in a row in front of a beautiful new church.  There is actually a another (fourth) cell tower just to the right of this photo.

  • Strict residential neighborhood siting criteria – In the unlikely event the cell tower company unequivocally demonstrates there is no alternative to a residential neighborhood site (no feasible alternative location and a demonstrated need) then we must have very strict siting and design criteria. In short, if the installation is out of place in the neighborhood or can be recognized as a cell tower then it is unacceptable. Full stop, end of story, no exceptions. A cell tower next to a home will significantly lower its value as fewer people will be willing to buy the home. We must protect our neighborhoods, it is unacceptable that our community’s families take a huge financial hit just so a predatory company like Crown Castle can increase their revenue.

Palos Verdes has been targeted as a speculative venture by Crown Castle and the others due to our income demographics. We are a very attractive business opportunity for them. They aren’t trying to put these sites on every corner in lower income neighborhoods due to the poor return on investment.  Knowing we probably wouldn’t like it, they’ve attempted to bully their way into our neighborhoods with out of context legal claims, cherry-picked technical data, and ominous sounding threats. We’ve been able to fight them off for many sites but there is a huge amount of money at stake and they won’t relent unless we stand together. We’ve had a great week with the veto of SB649 and recent cell tower denials but we need to stay vigilant.

 

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