Small cell site coming to Carmel Valley

A new small cell network of 150 sites across the city of San Diego will have an antenna located in Carmel Valley. The Mobilitie antenna and equipment will be located on a streetlight on 2602 1/3 Carmel Country Road, near the entrance to the Elysian condominium complex.

At least one Carmel Valley resident, Amnon Ptashek, has expressed concerns about the potential health impacts of placing a site emitting radio frequency emissions so close to a residential neighborhood. Ptashek was involved in the fight in 2014 to oppose a cell tower placement on the Carmel Valley Library. The sites were proposed to be enclosed in cupolas (towers with domed roofs) and petitioners successfully kept the antennas off the library and re-located on the shopping center across the street.

“I’m not against modernization, what I’m trying to say is that where there are libraries, schools, residences, the city should be more careful,” Ptashek said.

The proposed node locations are selected by the wireless carrier based on network needs, according to Paul Brencick, the senior public information officer for the Development Services Department.

Mobilite is required to obtain a master use and occupancy permit to allow for the installation of the small cell network. Each of the network’s 150 sites will be installed on city-owned streetlights. Each site will consist of a subterranean vault, a single microwave backhaul system (called UE Relays) and an antenna with associated radio and equipment within a cabinet that would be placed on the existing streetlight.

“The City of San Diego conducted an environmental review that determined the project would not have the potential for causing a significant effect on the environment,” said Brencick.

The project meets the criteria in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) which allows for the operation, repair, maintenance, permitting, leasing, licensing, or minor alteration of existing facilities involving “negligible or no expansion of use beyond that existing at the time of the determination.” The project would result in a negligible expansion of use, Brencick said.

The notice of the right to appeal the environmental determination went out on Nov. 21, giving 10 business days to appeal. Ptashek said it seemed unfair that that the timeline to appeal was over the Thanksgiving holiday and that to file an appeal or suggest an alternative, residents had to physically go downtown, it could not be mailed or e-mailed.

The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board also missed the window to respond as it was dark in December and its next meeting is not until the end of January.

Ptashek was in the electrical technology field for several years as well as the mobile healthcare software industry. With his experience working for a communications company and operating communications equipment, he said he knows that the more people consume data these days, the cell site needs to be smaller— more bandwidth is needed for video, social networking and for 5G (fifth generation wireless systems) communication.

“The cell site is shrinking and they need to put in more sites, which I understand. Using city light poles makes sense because it reduces infrastructure and consumption of electricity if you do it nicely,” Ptashek said. “But to put the site in a distance of 20 feet from a bedroom just doesn’t make sense.”

Ptashek said there are alternatives to be considered, such as to locate sites where people are coming and going “but not slowly radiating at a very low power at a short distance”— somewhere like a parking lot.

Ptashek has argued that “to be close to a cell tower is like putting your head in a very slow-cooking microwave” but due to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, states and local governments cannot consider potential health impacts of RF radiation from cell towers when a wireless company files an application to install one.

“The bottom line is it is what it is,” Ptashek said. “You need to appeal by architectural or other reasons.”

While his concerns may not be heard in this case, he hopes that some city planning efforts will be made to keep future installations farther away from where people live as he believes the distance does make a difference.

Earlier this year, Senate Bill 649 was proposed to streamline California’s process to install small cells like this site. The bill would’ve allowed the construction of cellular antennas on public property without local review in an effort to ensure that communities across the state have access to the most advanced communications technologies and keep up with growing demands for 5G.

In addition to providing that a small cell is a permitted use, per the bill language there would be a cap on the amount that could be charged for leasing the space, an amount not to exceed $250 for each small cell attached to local infrastructure.

Rent is different for each type of telecommunication equipment or location in San Diego, according to Brencick. The current rate for small cell sites is $4,000 per site, per year. Currently, San Diego is making approximately $4.2 million annually on telecommunication agreements.

In July the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board wrote a letter urging Mayor Kevin Faulconer to oppose the bill, as it would take away community input on the visual impact of cell sites as well as the siting of equipment. Senate Bill 649 passed the senate and the assembly but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill in October.