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Column: Lengthy Planning & Zoning Review of AT&T Wireless Facility Ignores Wider Public Benefits of Cell Phone Service

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As an Albany citizen who has closely followed the city’s cell tower siting discussions, I am dismayed with the in the of AT&T’s proposal for a colocated wireless facility at .

It is now almost four years since the carrier first proposed the project. Currently AT&T has no facility in Albany, and Albany residents have only spotty service from facilities in neighboring El Cerrito and Berkeley

The initial application by AT&T for this site was received May 22, 2008. P&Z staff required AT&T to build a model of the facility, then told AT&T to lower the cabinet, change the lighting and add safety signs. The city-hired consultant, Jonathan Kramer, reviewed and recommended approval in March 2009.

Staff then recommended approval in their report in May 2009. P&Z concluded at that time that it wanted the rooftop equipment setback further to meet daylight plane requirement and so voted to delay the application.

AT&T reengineered the project, moved equipment cabinets and submitted an amended application. A second consultant reviewed and recommended approval and staff also recommended approval. P&Z met again on Oct. 26, 2010. P&Z members decided this time that what they wanted was a more in-depth analysis of alternative sites and more detail on heights and setbacks on the roof.

AT&T again reengineered the project to change the setback from the property line, undertook lengthy negotiations with Sprint, which already had a site at 1035 San Pablo Ave., to reroute their cables, and expanded the alternative analysis as requested.

AT&T submitted a third amended application in October 2011. A third consultant review of the project also recommended approval, subject to a few changes. Staff again recommended approval. P&Z met for a third time on Jan. 10, 2012, and discussed the application. They asked staff to inspect the site and provide yet more detail on the rooftop structures.

Finally, at their meeting last Tuesday, P&Z chose to focus their discussion on the narrow issue of how to interpret a subsection of the code on height exceptions. Their decision threatens to undermine the entire project. In effect they have concluded that there never was any available space for AT&T facilities on the roof of 1035 San Pablo. Never ever.

All the analysis and engineering and negotiation work by AT&T, and review by staff and consultants over almost four years, will have been for naught. Before the project was even proposed, P&Z has now concluded, the allowable rooftop coverage for the height exception had been exceeded. 

Since 2004, the city’s zoning ordinance has set the height limit for the San Pablo district at 38 feet but has allowed a portion of the building (up to 10 percent of the roof area) to extend 10 feet higher. The problem centers around a penthouse on the roof that was built years before the zoning ordinance. This penthouse has been used since the building was constructed as a break room and an office, or “habitable space.”

As habitable space, the penthouse has been excluded from calculations to determine what percentage of the roof can extend above 38 feet. Now P&Z wants to include it in the calculations, even though as staff notes, “As the project is proposed, the building structure will not physically expand. The building footprint and overall building height will remain the same.”

P&Z is now saying for the first time, almost four years after the initial AT&T application, that the project never could have been done in the first place. They are saying this after requiring multiple resubmissions by the carrier, multiple consultant reviews, and years of terrible or non-existent wireless coverage for thousands of Albany residents. 

Notably missing from all this back and forth on arcane details of rooftop coverage is any discussion of the public good, of the benefit of providing adequate wireless service to the thousands of Albany AT&T customers.

Numerous letters to P&Z and to Albany Patch have documented citizens' concerns about lack of coverage. Residents have stressed safety concerns when they cannot complete emergency calls.

Public support is overwhelmingly in favor of the AT&T facility. An informal count shows at least 55 citizens writing or speaking in favor, an additional 100 AT&T subscribers submitting postcards and 45 Albany merchants signing a petition. Roughly 18 residents have voiced opposition. 

Balancing the broader public good (usually expressed in a general plan) against narrowly focused zoning details is often a difficult issue for planning commissioners. According to the League of California Cities Planning Commissioner’s Handbook, commissioners should:

“Consider which approach will best promote the public’s confidence in the planning process. Will the public’s confidence be undermined if the commission doesn’t enforce the plan? Or will denying the amendment look so rigid and unfair to the applicant that it will undermine the public’s faith in the planning commission as a decision-making body? What decision will best support the commission’s stewardship of the community’s growth and development?” 

The Handbook further states that findings on a project should address:

“What is the connection between the action and the benefits of the project?

 What public policy interests are advanced by the decision?”

So far discussion of "public policy interests" has been completely missing from the AT&T permit discussion.

P&Z has consistently been looking at the trees and missing the forest. The commission’s desire to stick to narrow issues may be a result of political tensions surrounding this issue, but it does not serve the broader public interest. The intent of the wireless ordinance is “the provision of personal wireless service facilities for the benefit of the Albany community.” We have lost sight of that and consequently the community’s well-being suffers.

As the issue stands right now, the way forward for approval of the AT&T site at 1035 San Pablo is either to approve the application as submitted and as recommended by staff, or to allow the applicant to prepare a request for a variance, and for P&Z to rapidly approve the variance for the rooftop coverage/height issue and allow the project to proceed.

I urge all members of the community, and especially AT&T customers, to contact P&Z to support the passage of such a variance so that we can finally get adequate wireless service in Albany. 

Contacts

Planning Commission members: David Arkin, Peter Maass, Phillip Moss, Leo Panian, Stacy Eisenmann 

Staff: Anne Hersch <ahersch@albanyca.org>, Jeff Bond <jbond@albanyca.org>

Paul D March 19, 2012 at 12:53 AM
Janice.. "scores of people" having their view compromised is insufficient reason for rendering thousands of people unable to use their phones. If we roll over and play dead for twenty, thirty or forty people out of 18,539 nothing will ever get done about anything. There will always be a few percent who will never be satisfied -- And the P&Z groups intransigence in solving this community problem no doubt extends to past members of the group also. Thank you for bringing up your prior connection with the organization. I now better understand your reluctance to find a solution for the overwhelming majority while dithering over the potential worries of the very few. I also love your comment about switching carriers. You seem to have money to burn... I look forward to your check sent to my residence to cover my contractual obligations.
Michael Barnes March 19, 2012 at 01:28 AM
Janice, Please let me clear up a few misconceptions: I would not characterize the monopole as a Verizon monopole. Actually, as Clay Larson informed us, the first provider on the pole is Metro PCS, which has a store across San Pablo from the pole. Since cell providers like to get good reception at their stores, I suspect Verizon will be the more willing of the two providers to relocate their antennas. If they could find someplace. Second, The proposed AT&T installation won't be visible. There is a 3-foot parapet wall on top of the building that hides the equipment, and the antennas will be behind screens painted to match the building. Third, I think you are implying that the rich disproportionately use cell phones. The opposite is true. Cell phone users tend to be younger, lower-income, non-white and renters as opposed to home owners. It is home owners who have land lines and less need for cell phones. This is precisely why cell providers have to but their base stations along San Pablo Ave. With a few exceptions, cell companies can't move the towers further east into residential neighborhoods because of Albany's restrictive cell tower ordinance. Who benefits from that? Albany residents who mistakenly have health concerns about cell towers and who tend to be homeowners, older, white and higher-income.
David Sanger March 19, 2012 at 01:57 AM
Janice - 1) certainly changing carriers solves the problem for some people who can afford hundreds of dollars in early termination fees and new equipment, but it is not a solution for the public policy question. The City of Albany does not have the right to pick and choose wireless carriers. 2) If you think the proposed AT&T facility is uglier than the Verizon monopole then you clearly havent' read the proposal. Here are the before and after views: http://twitpic.com/8y7xv4 and http://twitpic.com/8y7qgy 3) San Pablo Avenue is not a residential district but commercial.
Michael Barnes March 19, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Clay, Here's a column by Finnish researcher Dariusz Leszczynski on that study you mention above. It's worth a read: http://tinyurl.com/6qcgvk3
Caryl O'Keefe March 20, 2012 at 12:16 AM
(This responds to Janice Hitchcock’s March 18 reply to my March 12 post. There was no reply button there, pls scroll up for context) Problem definition merits clarity; there’s no solution in maligning the applicant. Risks of focusing on the poor AT&T coverage include perpetuating the underlying causes, deflecting attention from problem sources, and/or creating other problems. It’s helpful to advise which provider offers good service in Albany. It’s not helpful to make an unsupported assertion that AT&T is out to monopolize. Especially since your solution encourages a monopoly position for Verizon! Even absent that irony, recommendation for all with poor service to switch to another provider is unlikely to be a longterm fix. Nor does it reflect the broad public good. I don’t want any more delay in approving an AT&T (“stealthed” for aesthetics) proposal, but suspect any such action will result in delay from an appeal or lawsuit. We should be working on revision to code. Council recently approved funds for an rfq to contract with a radiofrequency engineer for info on Albany sites for wireless, see Feb 21 staff report 71A http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?recordid=4970&page=640. Public attention is needed to be sure the pending rfq will request professional input about what wireless facilities are needed in Albany to optimize current and future wireless service.

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