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