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Carmel Valley board says cell tower bill removes local input

The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board is concerned that a proposed new state law may streamline the process for the construction of cellular antennas on public property and cut them completely out of the conversation.

At its July 27 meeting, the planning board voted 10-1 to send a letter to Mayor Kevin Faulconer urging him to join other mayors in opposing Senate Bill 649 and the construction of cellular antennas on public property without local review.

Members of the planning board are worried the law would accelerate approval and take away community input on the visual impact the cell sites have on the community as well as the placement of equipment boxes; many feel public right of way shouldn’t be dictated by the state.

“From our point of view we believe that this legislation was probably written by people associated with the cell industry so we’re skeptical that the local control will remain and we would like to ensure that it does,” board member Ken Farinsky said.

Chevelle Newell-Tate, representative from the office of State Senator Toni Atkins, said the purpose of SB 649 is to ensure that communities across the state have access to the most advanced communications technologies. As there are growing demands for 5G (fifth generation wireless systems), Atkins supported the bill to help keep up with those demands.

“(Senator Atkins) does understand it’s a visual blight but moving forward with broader bandwidth and reduced cell-usage costs is definitely beneficial,” Newell-Tate said.

The final approval of the legislation could come in September — it passed the Senate and Assembly and is currently in the Assembly’s Committee on Appropriations. The city of San Diego has yet to take a position but local cities that oppose the bill include Encinitas, Vista and Chula Vista.

Under existing law, a wireless telecommunications co-location facility is subject to city or country discretionary permit and is required to comply with specified criteria. The bill would provide that a “small cell” is a permitted use, subject only to a specified permitting process adopted by a city or county.

The bill defines small cell as antennas on the structure no more than 6 cubic feet in volume, equipment on the pole that does not exceed 9 cubic feet and the cumulative total of associated equipment that does not exceed 21 cubic feet. The total of any ground-mounted equipment cannot exceed 35 cubic feet, or –as some board members provided as a reference — the size of a refrigerator.

The planning board often reviews cell phone antennas, lobbying for better landscaping to camouflage units or all-out opposing the placements.

In 2014, the community and the planning board stopped cell phone antennas from being placed on the Carmel Valley Library — the antennas were able to find a home on the roof of the shopping center across the street.

Steven Hadley, representing City Councilmember Barbara Bry, said recently his office was able to relocate a proposed equipment box that would’ve been placed in front of a community’s monument sign. He said often times there is some leeway, a range of 50 yards where utilities can be successfully relocated –“the community appreciates that input and it’s important,” Hadley said.

“As a board and as a city we are very even-handed with regard to cell towers and wanting them to be attractive and in the right locations and this takes all considerations out of our hands and out of the city’s hand,” board member Laura Copic said.

Newell-Tate said that she does not believe the bill takes away local control over the placement of wires or boxes.

“I think there is flexibility. The streamlining process just means that if these boxes meet certain criteria then the process of approving them has less hoops to jump through or takes less time,” Newell-Tate said.

Rob Knudson, from the office of Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, said that the bill also works to streamline the cost process.

The bill would authorize the city or county to charge three fees: an annual charge for each cell attached to infrastructure, an annual attachment rate or annual rate.

Per the bill language, an annual charge is not to exceed $250 for each small cell attached to local infrastructure. Currently, many cities receive as much as $3,000 per year in lease payments for antenna sites.

While Carmel Valley Planning Board Chair Frisco White said that their comments should be related to the planning side and not the financial side of the issue, board member Barry Schultz said it was hard to separate the two.

“They’re using the public right of way and they should pay for it. This is in my estimation an attempt by the industry to continue to take advantage of their monopoly power,” Schultz said. “They restricted the type of issues we can address from a design standpoint and now here they want to take away the financial aspect as well.”

Schultz stated his belief that the financial savings of the bill will not be coming to the consumer’s pocket.

In a follow-up after the meeting, Knudson said he sent the board’s comments to Maienschein’s Sacramento office and amendments are currently circulating that address many of the board’s concerns.

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