San Diego approves strong rules for 5G cell antennas

A streetlight with a small antenna
(Los Angeles Times)

San Diego approved aggressive new cell antenna regulations Tuesday, July 23, in preparation for the wireless industry rolling out advanced 5G technology next year.

The regulations are among more than 50 policy changes approved Tuesday, July 23, by the City Council as part of a wide-ranging update to San Diego’s municipal code.

In addition to regulating cell antennas, the policy changes make it easier to build housing geared for formerly homeless people and loosen zoning rules to reduce ground-floor commercial vacancies in multi-story buildings.

The wireless antenna regulations include special protections for the city’s historic areas and efforts to limit visual impacts, while also aiming to keep the new antennas as unobtrusive as possible.

City officials touted the new rules as among the strongest in the nation, predicting they will protect neighborhoods from poorly designed cell antenna installations that damage community character and aesthetics.

Industry leaders expressed unenthusiastic acceptance of the city’s decision to take an aggressive approach.

“This draft ordinance is a tough one — there’s no getting around that,” said Adrian Salas, government affairs manager for the cell antenna installation company Crown Castle. “We think we can still find a way forward if it’s applied fairly.”

Community leaders praised San Diego’s efforts, which come despite new federal rules that limit the discretion of cities on some aspects of cell antennas.

“Your vote today will reaffirm San Diego’s status as a stellar model for city telecom regulations, with language that respects neighborhoods while complying with federal mandates,” Kensington resident Priscilla Burge said.

The wireless industry has touted advanced 5G technology, which is expected to be unveiled nationwide next year, for its ability to boost data capacity, speed up performance and lengthen device battery life.

The shift to 5G requires the industry to essentially abandon old-fashioned cell towers in favor of “small cells,” where a group of smaller antennas with more limited ranges transmits the same cell data as one large antenna would.

The small cell antennas will be placed a block or so apart along streets and at public facilities. Typically, they will be mounted on telephone poles and street lights. Under the regulations, radials and mounting brackets must be concealed, antennas must be painted to match poles and companies must strive to avoid visual clutter.

Some small antennas are already operating in San Diego to support less advanced 4G technology, but the shift to 5G will require many more of the antennas throughout the city.

The new federal law requires San Diego and other cities to loosen some rules, speed up approval times and lower fees.

But the cities keep their rights to regulate the visual impact and safety of cell towers, if it’s in a “reasonable” way and if the city’s criteria are objective and published in advance.

That includes providing added protections to historic districts, where community character is often more vulnerable to change.

New installations would have to meet historic criteria set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and neighborhoods could appeal antennas approved by staff to the Planning Commission.

The Save Our Heritage Organisation, an historic preservation group, praised the city for the new approach and for including the group in the process.

Amie Hayes, an historical resources specialist for the group, said the regulations could make San Diego a community that other places consider a model.

Some local residents urged the council not to approve the new regulations, contending the city should consider the potential health impacts of small cell antennas.

But federal law prohibits local governments from considering those issues.

Councilwoman Dr. Jennifer Campbell said she cast the lone vote against the regulations based partly on health concerns.

“The scientific information in regard to health effects of 5G is inconclusive at the time,” Campbell said by text message after the vote.

The council approved the cell regulations 7-1, with Councilman Mark Kersey recusing himself because he owns a business connected to the industry.

The other policy changes, which were voted on separately because of Kersey’s recusal, were approved unanimously. They are part of an annual effort to update city zoning codes and related regulations.

They include making it easier to build fire stations and other public projects downtown, and changing environmental analysis regulations to make it less likely the city will get sued.

San Diego is the only city in the region that updates its zoning code annually with a large batch of policy changes, which it has done every year since 2007. Other cities handle such changes one at a time.

City officials say comprehensively updating the zoning code each year lets them quickly make small modifications that streamline regulations and adjust policies that have had contradictory or unintended consequences.

Critics say making so many changes at once reduces the opportunity for the public and elected leaders to thoroughly evaluate each change.

This year’s changes are formally called the 12th update to the Land Development Code and Local Coastal Program. Many of them need final approval from the California Coastal Commission to take effect.

— David Garrick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune