Residents Battle City Hall Over Cellular Units

By: 
Bill Pearl

In recent weeks, KTLA-TV and KFI radio both reported that City Hall contends federal laws and FCC rules leave the city unable to stop a telecommunications firm from using a city utility pole to install multiple cellular antennas that will beam high frequency signals within feet of a home in the 4300 block of Clark Ave.

Thus far, Long Beach City Councilmembers (with one exception: Supernaw) have avoided publicly discussing cell tower/antenna location issues.

But is the council’s silence federally required? Or do some councilmembers prefer to silence themselves to avoid discussing what is effectively a hot potato citywide issue?

It’s not the first time this has come up. In December 2019, the council shrugged objections from nearby homeowners and voted without dissent (motion by Councilwoman Stacy Mungo) to let a telecom firm erect a multi-antenna tower (artificially camouflaged to look like a tree) in Wardlow Park within feet of where children play.

In 2018, the City Council (with city attorney approval) enacted a 76 page ordinance that contains specific requirements for such towers. It permits city and resident objections, albeit federally limited, on certain grounds. And nothing prevents the City Council from discussing cellular antenna and tower issues even if immediate action is federally preempted.

Why the concern? Consider that your home microwave oven beams a roughly 600-1,100 watt radio signal (above the frequency of FM radio stations) that moves water molecules and creates heat that cooks things. Since you don’t put your head inside the microwave oven you’re not cooked. But telecom firms (like Verizon and AT&T) want to use those frequencies to handle bandwidth demand in the lucrative wireless marketplace. There’s major money involved here.

On Nov. 11, 2020, Councilman Daryl Supernaw agendized a meeting of his “Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (chair Supernaw, vice chair Uranga, member Pearce.) to “receive a report on Public Work’s role in 5G site location selection.” Supernaw was alone in starting the meeting (Pearce materialized after the meeting began; Uranga was absent).

Supernaw indicated it was his hope that the committee would advance the issue to City Council discussion, but that didn’t happen. Pearce made a motion for the committee to “receive” the report; Supernaw seconded it and the discussion went nowhere. A few months later, Mayor Garcia eliminated the “Transportation and Infrastructure Committee” (replacing it with another committee chaired by Supernaw) and management’s 5G report effectively vanished.

During Public Works Director Eric Lopez’s Nov. 11 presentation (including PPT [http://longbeach.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=8912290&GUID=0506670F-E77..., Long Beach’s outside legal counsel indicated that while federal preemption prevents the city from flatly refusing to allow the antennas, the City Council could discuss the issues involved.

City management told the committee that the city has “limited regulatory authority.”

[PPT text] Federal limitations:

  • Shall Not Effectively Prohibit Telecommunications Services
  • Shall Not Discriminate Among Functionally Equivalent Services
  • Shall Not Consider Radio Frequency Emissions
  • Shall Act Promptly (Within Shot Clock Periods)
  • Shall Base Decisions on Substantial Evidence
  • Shall Not Charge More Than Costs of Providing Access

State Limitations:

  • Shall Respect Statewide Franchise
  • Shall not Discriminate
  • Shall Regulate to Avoid “Incommoding” Use of Rights of Way
  • Shall Not Charge More Than Costs of Providing Access

What’s left? Long Beach Municipal Code Chapter 15.34, enacted after City Council consideration on April 17, 2018 and adoption on May 1, 2018 (9-0: Gonzalez, Pearce, Price, Supernaw, Mungo, Andrews, Uranga, Austin, Richardson.) The lengthy detailed ordinance recites that its purpose is “to regulate the establishment and operation of Wireless Telecommunications Facilities within the City of Long Beach” with the intent to:

Allow for the provision of wireless communications services adequate to serve the public’s interest within the city

Require, where feasible and consistent with the city’s aesthetic and planning objectives, the co-location of Wireless Telecommunications Facilities

Minimize the negative aesthetic impact of Wireless Telecommunications Facilities, establish a fair and efficient process for review and approval of applications, assure an integrated, comprehensive review of environmental impacts of such facilities, and protect the health, safety and welfare of the City of Long Beach

Strongly encourage the location of Wireless Telecommunications Facilities in those areas of the city where the adverse aesthetic impact on the community is minimal

Strongly encourage wireless telecommunications providers to configure all facilities in such a way that minimizes displeasing aesthetics through careful design, siting, landscaping, screening, and innovative camouflaging techniques

Enhance the ability of the providers of telecommunications services to provide such services to the city quickly, effectively, and efficiently

Conform to all applicable federal and state laws.

On Dec. 20, 2018 (on motion by Mungo, seconded by Austin), the council authorized management “to authorize and execute a Master License Agreement, and any necessary amendments, with Verizon Communications, Inc., for the non-exclusive use of city-owned properties, including street lights citywide, for wireless telecommunications facilities, for a 20-year term.

On Sept. 3, 2019, Mungo joined in a Council vote authorizing city management to enter into a contract allowing AT&T Mobility to build and operate a cell phone transmitting tower in Wardlow Park (artificially camouflaged to look like a tree) over the objections of nearby homeowners and within feet of a playground filled with children. The council action took place with no council discussion and limited information about its operation.

When Lakewood Village homeowners Moira Hahn (artist; retired college art professor) and Mark Hotchkiss (electronics engineer) learned of plans to put a multi transmitter cell antenna on a city parkway utility pole within feet of their home, they discovered City Hall offered them limited remedies. They could appeal the location, if they paid $106 (which they did) to cover the city’s cost of a hearing (to counter their appeal.) If a city-hired hearing officer rules against them, the city allows no appeal to the City Council.

Two Sacramento bills -- SB 556 and AB 537 -- would make it easier for telcom firms to obtain city approval and harder for residents (and cities themselves) to prevent it. Long Beach Vice Mayor (CD 9 Councilman) Rex Richardson is Manager of Government Affairs for Crown Castle (his full time job), a firm that installs cell phone towers. Crown Castle supports both SB 556 and AB 537.

The City of Long Beach opposes SB 556. On April 21, 2021, City Manager Tom Modica sent Sacramento lawmakers a City opposition letter on SB 556, writing in pertinent part:

“The city is committed to working with the legislature to further the state’s broadband goals with local design control. SB 556 directly conflicts with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) adopted regulations on wireless services deployment, which local governments nationwide are actively implementing. FCC regulations explicitly enable local governments to ensure that telecommunication installations meet appearance and design standards, maintain traffic safety, support the integrity of historical resources, and safeguard quality of life. To protect the public’s investment, the control of public rights-of-way must remain local. The city is committed to closing the digital divide, but the city opposes legislation that diminishes the city’s local control over our rights-of-way.”

On May 13, Long Beach area state Senators Lena Gonzalez and Tom Umberg both voted “yes” on SB 556. Their votes advanced it to the Assembly. (The vote was 31 yes, 2 noes, with 7 “no votes recorded.”) SB 556 was supported by (among others) the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, T-Mobile, Verizon and 14,000 individuals.

It was opposed by the City of Long Beach, along with multiple cities including Lakewood, Signal Hill, Bellflower, Downey, Fountain Valley, and Huntington Beach among others including the League of California Cities.

AB 537, would speed approval of applications and “require that a city or county not prohibit or unreasonably discriminate in favor of, or against, any particular technology.”

Firefighters have raised the issue of cell phone antennas for years. In 2004, the International Association of Firefighters adopted a position opposing “the use of fire stations as base stations for towers and/or antennas for the conduction of cell phone transmissions until a study with the highest scientific merit and integrity on health effects of exposure to low-intensity RF/MW radiation is conducted and it is proven that such sites are not hazardous to the health of our members.”

In 2015, the California legislature enacted AB 57, which deemed collocation or siting application of a wireless telecommunications facility approved if the city or county fails to approve or disapprove it “within the reasonable time periods” by the FCC but included the following exception: “(f) Due to the unique duties and infrastructure requirements for the swift and effective deployment of firefighters, this section does not apply to a collocation or siting application for a wireless telecommunications facility where the project is proposed for placement on fire department facilities.”

In 2017, the state legislature passed, but Governor Brown vetoed, SB 649, which permitted small cell antennas under city and county requirements but not if the small cell is located on a fire department facility.

With cell towers now poised to proliferate in Long Beach neighborhoods citywide, it’s unclear if City Councilmembers will maintain their current silence on these issues.

Bill Pearl is the publisher of lbreport.com, an online, local news source since August 2000.

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Comments

Excellent article. Thanks for putting everything into perspective. While our city officials mission should be the protection of and commitment to a safe environment for its citizens, their main concern is revenue and pandering to corporate profits. They're afraid to go against the dominant paradigm and will even throw their kids under the bus, risk their lives, rather than taking a stand for public health. Shame on L.B. city council. "Just following orders..."

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