voted Monday night to delay, by two more weeks, a decision about an application by AT&T to build wireless antennas on the roof of a building at 1035 San Pablo Ave.
The matter was set to appear before the City Council after AT&T appealed a earlier this year to deny the application, which has been in the works for roughly four years.
AT&T says it has no antenna sites in Albany, which has led to widespread gaps in coverage throughout town.
The planning commission voted in May to deny the application, indicating that it did not comply with the city code. Specifically, the rooftop on which AT&T hopes to build the antennas, argue some, is already too cluttered by other structures and an existing Sprint antenna to allow for additional construction.
Proponents of AT&T's plans, as well as company representatives, have said officials could interpret the code in a different way such that the plans would, in fact, conform with Albany rules.
Under the current application, much of the AT&T equipment would be placed inside a penthouse on the roof, with the antennas themselves mounted on a separate pedestal behind what has been described as a 10-foot-tall, 20-square-foot screened enclosure. (Click here to see what this could look like. The , as well as the for Monday's meeting, .)
The council voted 3-2 on Monday night to ask for more information about another site on San Pablo Avenue that city staff said might possibly better comply with the city code.
Vice Mayor and opposed the motion, by . Atkinson and Lieber appeared ready to vote to uphold the planning commission's denial of the AT&T application.
Javandel said, before making that decision, he hoped to learn more about an alternative site suggested by city staff, at 979 San Pablo.
One of AT&T's arguments is that there is no other viable site in Albany that would provide coverage to one of the key areas needing a better signal.
Javandel said the 979 San Pablo site would offer more space on which to build the wireless facility, but noted that the antenna structure would be more visible than at the 1035 San Pablo site.
He asked city staff to work with AT&T to determine whether the 979 San Pablo site was a feasible alternative.
"I don't want to be perceived as having the project chasing its tail," he said. "It's not just, 'throw another obstacle and wait for it to fail.' That's not the way I want to handle this."
AT&T spokesman Lane Kasselman said, after the meeting, that the communications company focused on 1035 San Pablo Ave. as the best possible site for several reasons; for one, there's an existing cell facility on its rooftop.
Albany's ordinance regarding cell phone facilities specifies that it's preferable, when possible, to "co-locate" antennas. But numerous residents who live nearby told the council that, even if the location is theoretically preferable, their neighborhood is not the place for cell phone antennas.
The building is also one of the tallest in the area, and includes structures on its roof that Kasselman said would allow AT&T to disguise its antennas and allow them to blend in with their surroundings.
He said the company has already explored "all the options" for other possible antenna locations, and does not consider 979 San Pablo to be a viable alternative, but that AT&T will work with city staff "to figure out if there's a 'holy grail' solution."
Kasselman said AT&T would also discuss, with the 1035 San Pablo property owner, whether it's possible to reconfigure the existing penthouse to reduce its footprint, which could leave room for AT&T's wireless antennas. (Javandel had suggested this as one possible solution.)
AT&T also may consider legal remedies, Kasselman noted.
"Under the law it's very clear: If the applicant is following all the guidelines laid out for them, the city has to do their best to approve it," he said. "Just because the council wants to take four, or 10, years to sort this out, that doesn't mean the community wants to wait that long."
Nearly 20 members of the public, some representing a "responsible wireless" advocacy group and others representing the business community, spoke during the public comment period.
Approximately seven spoke against the application, with about 11 in favor of it.
Attorney Robert Outis criticized the city's wireless ordinance, calling it unnecessarily complex, and "totally out-of-proportion" with land use regulations that appear elsewhere in the city code. He said the ordinance has been used by opponents of wireless antennas to halt their construction in much of Albany altogether.
"I'm not an AT&T fan," he told the council, "but I believe you're operating from a pretextural and dishonest ordinance to do what you're not allowed to do." The ordinance, he continued, is "about regulations that are designed to achieve a political result."
Those in favor of the AT&T application said the lack of coverage hurts local businesses, as well as the city's economy; is a safety risk for Albany youth who cannot reach their parents; and puts disabled residents and visitors, as well as people who find themselves needing emergency assistance, at particular risk.
Others said the part of the wireless ordinance that limits rooftop coverage to 10 percent, which is the main obstacle to the AT&T proposal at this point, had been an arbitrary designation that could easily be increased to 20 or 30 percent without negative ramifications.
Many of those who spoke against the AT&T application said they live near the proposed site, and that they don't want their children growing up near more antennas.
"It's not necessary for us to experience for everybody else to have their safety," said one Kains Avenue resident who called cell coverage "a choice," rather than "a right." She added: "I'm trying to stand up for the needs of my children, and the children in my neighborhood. And also the people that wanna live there and wanna raise their families, and not live in a ghetto."
Albany resident Ed Fields cautioned the council to be wary of what he said was a slew of misinformation provided by carriers about their so-called requirements for antenna sites.
Julie Beck, speaking on behalf of Albany Residents for Responsible Oversight of Wireless, said AT&T has provided "no convincing evidence" that they had researched other areas for cell towers.
(AT&T has presented numerous reports showing that there is no other appropriate or available location, but critics have said the reports were not verified by an independent analyst.)
In a 10-minute presentation to the council, Beck said the application would not lead to better public safety, and suggested that AT&T could perhaps pursue a temporary mobile antenna site that could park at City Hall.
Beck said she hoped the council would not be intimidated by AT&T.
"We are a democracy," she said. "Albany has the right under federal law to create ordinances that protect its citizens."
Click the "Keep me posted" button below this story for updates on cell phone issues in Albany. Read more on Albany Patch about the AT&T application here.
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