Letter to the Editor: Albany Cell-Phone Issues and the City Council Election

Will the new City Council be able to resolve Albany's cell-phone impasse? Resident David Sanger writes in.

-By David Sanger

Albany is getting a reputation, but it is not one that we want. Recently in a conversation with a wireless carrier representative I asked how Albany compared to other California cities with respect to the application process for wireless facilities. Their answer was blunt: Albany is known among carriers as the most difficult city in California for getting approval for wireless sites.

A look at our recent history makes this clear. Since Albany's restrictive wireless ordinance was passed in 2005, not one new facility serving city residents has been approved. In the last 12 months we have turned down two applications in the works for years, rejected two appeals, and have subsequently been sued twice in Federal Court for violations of the Telecommunications Act. The Verizon suit was settled out of court and Verizon now has their building permit, with a net cost to the city of nearly $30K in lawyers' fees. The AT&T suit is in process with initial arguments scheduled for December. Meanwhile neither Verizon nor AT&T customers have yet received much-needed service improvements.

The next City Council, with two or three members carrying forward and the rest newly elected, should have as the highest priority a plan to reduce this impasse and streamline our cumbersome process so that wireless facilities can be approved expeditiously.

There are several problems with Albany's wireless ordinance and approval process:

First, the process takes far too long. Outgoing Councilmember Lieber bragged at a recent meeting that four years is "not too long" in Albany; that was before voting to deny AT&T's application appeal which had been filed in 2008. In fact four years is a ridiculous amount of time. When the FCC was asked to rule on what was a "reasonable time" to act on a wireless facility application, they ruled it was 90 days for collocations and 150 days for standalone sites.

Second, the ordinance's preference for siting wireless facilities as far away as possible from the people they serve vastly reduces the number of viable sites for a carrier.

Third, the way we have discussed the issue as a community and misconceptions about the role of the City, have made it more difficult to find common ground. Thousands of Albany residents rely on mobile service (both voice and data) for daily communications and business needs, yet their voices are not well represented. There are roughly 15,000 wireless customers in Albany (nationwide penetration is over 104%). Despite this, arguments from a few opponents at Planning and Zoning have unduly emphasized purported health risks of base stations (not a municipal issue at all, but something for the FCC). The same fears led in 2004 to the rejection of a proposal to add a
cell facility to Albany High School, similar to the one that has been successfully operating for many years at Albany's other high school, St Mary's.

Albany City Council candidates have addressed the cell tower issue in public meetings, on the Patch and on their campaign websites. Their approaches differ, however, as does their understanding of the history, relevant law and technology.

Roughly the candidates fall into three groups:

The pragmatist wing comprises Tod Abbott, Michal Barnes and returning Councilmember Peggy Thomsen. All three emphasize working to find a way to be able to provide cell service to Albany residents and recognize that the current ordinance is not accomplishing that end.

Tod makes the point that " robust cell phone support has gone beyond a luxury or convenience and has become an issue of public safety and well being." Peggy reiterated that point at the Candidates' night, recalling testimony by a blind Albany resident who relied on working cellphone for his personal safety. At the last Council meeting in July, Peggy, along with Mayor Javandel, sought to find a way to allow AT&T to work with city so that their amended application fell within the specific zoning height exception, but they were outvoted 3 to 2.

Michael Barnes has been the most consistent of the candidates in working for better cell coverage. As a School Board member he opposed the initial ordinance in 2005 and predicted that it would be difficult to work with. When the Cell-Free Albany group brought up purported health risks from base stations, Michael bought an RF meter and went all over town documenting actual measured RF levels to show that they were uniformly far below the mandated thresholds.

Both Tod and Michael have spoken often at P&Z and Council meetings advocating for a common-sense approach. Tod adds the retail perspective that businesses increasingly rely on customer mobile internet access for menus maps and reviews, and even for credit card payments.

The second group of candidates, Peter Maass and Nick Pilch, share a Sierra Club endorsement, but it is Peter who has been the most closely involved in the current process as a long-term member of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

During his tenure the Commission met six times to discuss the AT&T application. P&Z could have turned down the application at the first meeting in 2008 and saved huge expense and delay. Instead P&Z ignored recommendations for approval from staff and consultants three times in a row, and each time asked for additional information or changes. Pete Maass has indeed at last acknowledged on his website that we need to "revisit the ordinance to look at ways to streamline the process," but it was the very lack of swift action while he was on P&Z which led to the lengthy and futile delays.

Pete also continues to suggest that the City explore "putting a tower up on the USDA site" on Buchanan Street even though AT&T has explicitly stated that the location does not meet their coverage needs. Interest in the USDA building stems from a recent law encouraging agencies to allow wireless facilities on publicly accessible buildings. Contrary to Pete Maass' optimistic spin, however, the facility director has emphasized that access would be "a security hazard" and asked "why is the city involved in this activity?" This approach, like a parallel effort to study a municipal tower on Albany Hill, is highly unlikely to resolve our wireless problem any time soon, and only serves to further delay existing applications.

Nick Pilch has been notedly silent on the cell tower issue with no posting on his website but he did say at the forum that he "certainly wants to take a look at the ordinance to see if it is preventing the applicants from installing cell antennas." Study is fine, but even a passing knowledge of recent controversies and lack of approvals should have made the problem clear.

The final cadre of candidates, Ulan McKnight and Sheri Spellwoman, have both taken positions favoring the current ordinance and opposing the AT&T facility.

Ulan, a newcomer to the cell tower conversation, thinks that he can resolve the issue by urging carriers to build distributed systems (DAS) which use fiber optics to link many small antennas, often on utility poles, to a central network hub. There are two problems with this. First the city is not allowed by law to legislate or even recommend specific technologies. Second DAS is not intended for use as mainstream wireless facility; it is used primarily used in malls, airports and stadiums, or in areas where there is rugged terrain. A macro cell site is always significantly more efficient and hence is the default implementation in communities like ours. There are also significant zoning issues with placing multiple antennas on utility poles in residential areas. If a carrier proposed a DAS system then we'd need to address it, but it is certainly no panacea.

The last candidate, Sheri Spellwoman, claims the ordinance is working fine as is. If you don't want cell facilities, and don’t mind spending scarce taxpayer dollars defending lawsuits, then perhaps it is, but as noted, no new installations have been approved this side of the freeway since 2005, and service is indeed terrible for most residents. Several times Sheri has mistakenly suggested that the city "pre-approve" cell sites (or that they already have done so). Unfortunately that is just not the way the ordinance works. Also she has taken a vigorous anti-business, anti-corporate stance, saying "I don't want to see these companies try to push us around because we are a small town." Nick Pilch echoed this sentiment at candidate's night. The trouble with this oppositional attitude, as Tod Abbott points out, is that "We're not hurting AT&T. Who we're hurting are the citizens of Albany who have AT&T service.

As final note, not only will the incoming City Council need to address amendments to our Wireless Ordinance to expedite the approval process, but demand is rising significantly every year. New data services coming on-line will only increase the need. Albany is still facing a lawsuit in Federal Court. We don't need another. We cannot afford our reputation as the most difficult city in California for wireless companies to do business. Enough is enough. Please vote for change.

*Click here for past coverage.

Peter Goodman November 04, 2012 at 06:34 AM
I agree with Damon Lisch. I call them Green Tea Baggers because they want to demagogue us into accepting their junk science. No better than Bachmann, Akin, et al. Green Tea Baggers would have us believe that the real world stops at Albany, cell phones cause brain cancer, only small businesses create jobs and pay wages, that there is some magical size at which a business becomes 'too big.' and that traffic going to stores in El Cerrito and 'progressive' Berkeley don't pollute or endanger Albany streets . I've never understood this idea of 'local' either. As if locally owned businesses don't buy inventory from non-local sources, or don't get loans from national banks, or always pay better than minimum wage. Let's BAT away the Green Tea Party.
Dept. of Misinformation November 04, 2012 at 07:25 AM
oh come on, peg.
Brian Parsley November 04, 2012 at 02:47 PM
Peter you hit the nail on the head. It's important to understand that shop local isolationist don't want you to shop in Albany. They are happy to have you shop in El Cerrito, Berkeley, or Richmond as long as you shop at the stores they approve of. Even one of the Keep Albany Local candidates, Sheri Spellwoman, doesn't buy into her own "local" rhetoric. Candidate Spellwoman's lawn signs came from Tampa, Florida. Tampa, Florida? Holy carbon footprint Batman!
Dover November 04, 2012 at 06:50 PM
Ulan shops at the Berkeley Dollar Tree. He has been spotted there (as well as a stack of Tampa, Florida produced election signage in the back of his Prius in their parking lot) and that's where much of the decorations and supplies that he used in the "Vote for me and Sheri! We're hecka fun! Except when we're not!" Halloween haunted house were purchased. I'm VERY surprised that a Fortune 500 company based in Virginia with 4,000+ locations passed his stringent smell test. Whole Foods is small potatoes in comparison. Even Target would have been a better choice. What gives, Ulan? More "do as I say and ignore what I do?" Business as usual, eh?
Tatter Salad November 04, 2012 at 10:52 PM
Hi Heather, Regarding Nick at 'speaking down' (to you?) at a Park & Rec. meeting. I've been to several meetings. At one of the first, when you spoke positively regarding Area B at Memorial Park, he (corrected you?) spoke to you, and you dolefully looked down, and let him take over the meeting. (What is Kindle doing on the Daze anyway? Who appointed him?!) I don't know if this was because he appointed you, and expects better, or didn't like what you said; I suspect the latter. He is a very interactive guy, with deffinite leadership skills. He has led the Albany Rollers & Strollers from being a 'positive' bicycle collective to being a Politcal Activist Group. Filing suit against the City of Albany, and the University of California, threatening the P&Z committee regarding same, does NOT seem to be the actions of someone with Albany's best interest. The City's time and money for lawyers, and having to go 'private meeting' regarding the WholeFoods project as the result of his group's suit reflects his personal (and secret) ideological goals rather than transparent actions on Albany's behalf.
Preston Jordan November 05, 2012 at 04:43 PM
@Tatter - Nick has not only been endorsed by Commissioner Cunningham, he has also been endorsed by Commissioner Pearson (http://www.nickpilch4albany.com/endorsements). They are both the women he serves with on the Parks and Recreation Commission (http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=558). I indeed wish that AS&R and C0A did not have to file suit to motivate and provide time for a discussion regarding the University Village Mixed Use project's weakened global climate change mitigation. The groups asked the City, via staff and the Mayor, to extend the deadline for legal action to allow discussion without a suit. It chose not to do so.
Tatter Salad November 05, 2012 at 05:51 PM
You are speaking to "situation ethic" motivated 'double speak' folks IMHO. For instance, Nick's handout states he is 'for development at the U.C. WholeFoods- site'. And he IS! Just not the development envisioned by U.C., and approved by the City Council, and he filed a lawsuit against U.C. and the City of Albany to stop the acition. That's 'double speak.' Spellwoman and McNight believe in Bolt-Cutter diplomacy to express their opinions against U.C.'s thoughts on Agricultural Research. They have zero background actions to evaluate other than that. When I've spoken to those who posted signs for that pair, they invariably were unaware of their past and presnt ideological bent, and remove the signs. Sadly too, when it comes to supporting that stand, McNight groused here how it was unfair that he was named on the U.C. suit against the Occupiers. That guys got fiber... in his cereal that is.
Tatter Salad November 05, 2012 at 06:26 PM
Nick Pilch is an intelligent and cordial guy, yet easily shifts to 'double speak.' He was active on Park & Rec,but very 'Anti-dog'(park) in his actions. He does not express his ideological agenda, but similar to Kindle (on-call Albany Dog Catcher via Berkeley at $80k/yr.) and Penelope Leach, he drags his feet regarding Memorial Park Area B decisions at every opportunity. The idea of Area B was first mentioned by COUNCIL members 2 years AGO! (a shared space, but confining to off-leash dog owners, particularly during organized sports). Yet Penelope continues to obfuscate the issues, and fails to implement a decent sprinkler system so that grass can grow. Sprinkler issues existed in Area A as well, but the Little League hired their own caretaker to upgrade the sprinkler heads. (THEY can afford to do this: the City pays them $1800/mo. for care o fboth areas). Neighboring houses are concerned about the deteriorating grass; SO are the dog-users of the area! You cannot have grass grow when it is NEVER watered; and some areas OVER watered. Somehow, even after 2 years of asking, Penelope Leach has failed to pass that simple message on the P&R commitee. The area is maintained by 4th party contractors (City$ => Little League => various subcontractors). So there is NO possibility of someone raising their hand for serious responsibility of Area B; thanks to the foot dragging of Penelope and P&R.
Nick Pilch November 05, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Comments have been posted by an anonymous poster that my position is anti-dog or anti-dog park. Those who know all of my work on the Parks and Recreation Commission know that this is not true. Before the second fence was put in the ballpark area of Memorial Park (creating areas A and B), I took the lead on working out a compromise solution with the neighbors and the dog owners on the use of the then combined areas A and B. I was praised at City Council for my leadership on this issue. Once the additional fence was put in, the situation seems to be have drastically changed. I have heard that there has been a change of users of that area. Some Albany residents don't use it anymore. The new fence brought a host of new issues, I feel, and Parks and Rec is trying to get it right. At the last meeting, it was suggested that Parks and Rec hold off on making decisions until the winter or spring, but I was one of the stronger voices for acting sooner than later.
David Sanger November 05, 2012 at 11:35 PM
Well put Damon. The newly submitted AT&T application for 1035 San Pablo Avenue is an excellent case in point (an opportunity). Opponents previously said they were not opposed to wireless at all, but just wanted to be sure that "our laws are obeyed." Now that that AT&T is planning to remove offending penthouse and place their equipment downstairs, the rooftop coverage will be less that the 10% maximum allowed. (http://bit.ly/AlbanyPZapplications ) I would like to see all seven Council Candidates publicly commit to fully supporting the AT&T application for that location, if indeed findings show that the new plan successfully meets the rooftop coverage criteria.
Jake Stayman November 06, 2012 at 12:06 AM
Damon, thank you for expressing your thought so concisely and cogently. I have decided, after much deliberation, that I cannot support Maass or Pilch because of this single issue (although I agree with them on most other issues). I just don't believe that they really "get it".
Nick Pilch November 06, 2012 at 01:49 AM
Here's the statement I have on my website http://nickpilch4albany.com , and it's the same statement I have repeated publicly and privately: "We need to get an ATT cell antenna in Albany - I will do whatever it takes to get this through." Not only do existing ATT customers need service (and may have contracts that would cause a financial hardship to break), but allowing all providers to bring us decent service means that the consumer has more choice.
Tatter Salad November 06, 2012 at 03:09 AM
Nick, Regarding the Dog Park, what have you been smok'n? At the last meeting you and another Comittee member went on for 45 minutes discussing the merits of removing the out fences to area B. You failed to take into account that there is a row of trees, and a 2-3' wall on the East side of that area, and without a fence, the area would be hazardous to dogs and anyone running on the Field. You, and the entire P&R are at the mercy of what Penelope Leach tells you. She claimed to forward all messages she gets to you, but that is NOT the case. Otherwise you would know that the primary concern of BOTH the neighbors and the Park Users is the condition of the turf... and that with NO decent sprinkler function there, there can be NO turf. Also, as to the complaining neighbor(s), you would know that the police have received numerous calls from the SAME neighbor each time. Yes, Penelope has concerns that the Park is being used by non-Albany residents, well DUH... it is just 6 houses away from ElCerrito! By ALL the various dog organizations involved, 'ALDOG, Albany DOG and PIDO ' (which yes, are made up of citizens outside of Albany as well): YOU are the biggest impediment on the board, followed by non-committee members Penelope and Kindle. How can you spend two years on developing what was a City Council mentioned idea 2 years ago?! WHY can't you install proper sprinklers? (Who put Kindle alongside of you anyway? Who appointed him?!)
You Enjoy Myself November 06, 2012 at 03:21 AM
˙uǝsɯoɥʇ ʎƃƃǝd ʇou ʎlǝʞıl ʇsoɯ puɐ ssɐɐɯ ǝʇǝd 'ɥɔlıd ʞɔıu ɹoɟ ƃuıʇoʌ ɯ,I
Jim Beller November 09, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Tod, I don't know if you are still following this thread, but I found an interesting YouTube video in which an ethicist addressing a business school discusses opportunism, pragmatism, and idealism as a bell curve, with pragmatists and most of humanity falling in the middle. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al5VuAEI9Os Her definition of a pragmatist is one who wants to act on their ideals, but not if it puts them at a systematic disadvantage. This is inadequate when we apply it to the most important issues we face. Our failure to enact the Kyoto treaty on global warming was certainly pragmatic, but guarantees disastrous climate and weather events in our future.
Tod Abbott November 09, 2012 at 06:10 PM
I just happened to see this post. I'm glad the discussion can continue. Many people conflate Pragmatism with something like materialism -- a belief that intangibles do not matter. But that is not at all an accurate conception of pragmatism (though it is a very common one). Pragmatism takes as important anything that can have an effect on us, whether it is tangible or not. The only things it rejects out of hand are beliefs that can't be demonstrated as correct or incorrect (non-falsifiable) because they really have no meaning. I would argue that backing out of the Kyoto treaty was not at all a pragmatic decision. Despite the fact that the Kyoto agreement was very weak and would have made little impact on climate change, it's value was symbolic and following it could have had a huge impact on attitudes in this country and the world. That is a perfect example of a decision made on ideological rather than pragmatic grounds -- pragmatism only enters into it in the way that the powers that be used practical considerations as an excuse to justify their ideological decision. I guess my mistake is in talking about big-P Pragmatism while most people think of small-p pragmatism as something like practical materialism.
Jim Beller November 09, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Before I am forced to Google pragmatism again, let's recognize that my initial point was regarding candidates for office who label themselves, or are labeled by the media as pragmatists. As you say in your initial response, the phrase "has been so abused primarily by ideologues on the right..." You can understand that a voter might see it as a coded way to say "I am on the right wing" in a place like Albany. Peggy Thomsen graciously invited us to her election night party and I had a great time. However, when I struck up what I hoped to be an innocent conversation with a Certain Local Luminary I was quizzed about my vote. When recounting how we left Richmond for Albany, I remarked that we were lucky in comparison that we didn't have Chevron putting millions of dollars into our city council race. I was shocked when CLL equated the Sierra Club's involvement in our elections with Chevron's in Richmond. Has Albany pragmatism become coded anti-environmentalism?
Tod Abbott November 09, 2012 at 09:15 PM
Hmm. I apologize if I misinterpreted your initial remarks. I responded to the use of "pragmatism" because it is a word I used in my campaign materials. But I should have known better. The word "pragmatism" is used in a lot of different ways. For the record, when I talk about "Pragmatism," either in regard to myself or a body of beliefs, I'm talking about philosophical pragmatism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pragmatism I don't know who the CLL was that you spoke to at Peggy's party, but to equate opposition to Sierra Club candidates in this race with being anti-environmental is just flat out wrong. Every candidate in the race this year was an environmentalist. Keep in mind that the Sierra Club made its endorsements without talking to the other candidates. I don't have a problem with that -- they can make their endorsements on any basis they wish -- but in my opinion it does limit the ability to draw conclusions from their endorsements.
Jim Beller November 09, 2012 at 10:26 PM
Tod, what shocked me was the equation. The Sierra Club may strike many as undemocratic, high-handed or self-righteous. I will admit some ignorance as to the specifics. Chevron is the embodiment of unalloyed evil. We lived in their plume for twenty years, two of our cats died of cancer - luckily Daisy survived hers.
Caryl O'Keefe November 09, 2012 at 11:32 PM
@Jim, here are some specifics about the local Sierra Club PAC (SC) in Albany politics. More than one report of calls like this: An SC caller denigrated a candidate not endorsed by SC saying he was, horrors, a realtor and we all know that means anti-environment, pro massive development, etc. The call recipients were both realtors - and environmentalists. They wondered why an organization supporting a good cause resorted to mudslinging and insinuations that only SC-endorsed candidates care about the environment. Then there's the report from an SC-endorsed candidate that the price of Sierra Club endorsement is promise to do what SC says about Albany’s waterfront. A vivid illustration was when the Water Transit Authority planned to study possible ferry landing sites including Gilman St and the racetrack. This study would not cost the City. Norm LaForce of the local Sierra Club PAC attended the Council meeting to insist no study was needed for these sites, they were not good. A Berkeley attorney pointed out that national SC policy was to study issues before taking positions. LaForce did nto budge, and Councilmembers Lieber, Atkinson, and Wile voted for a resolution to tell the WTA not to study the sites.
Senior A. Titude November 10, 2012 at 12:47 AM
I just read today that Berkeley has authorized installation of AT&T towers on the old Oaks theater building. Revenue for Berkeley, not Albany. Hope the signal pushes to lower Solano - not holding my breath for Albany to do anything about cell service.
Jim Beller November 10, 2012 at 02:25 AM
Caryl, you are upset about a couple of misleading phone calls. I didn't even get called by the Sierra Club, did you? The ferry decision doesn't alarm me. Ferries are an environmental nightmare that squander scarce transit dollars. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/South-San-Francisco-ferry-loaded-with-subsidies-3659513.php Do you really feel that the relationship between Albany and the Sierra Club is in any way comparable to Richmond and Chevron? If so, I'm afraid that we've reached an alarming degree of polarization.
David Sanger November 10, 2012 at 03:59 AM
Yes that's true, Berkeley ZAB did approve antennas (not a tower) for the old Oaks Theater at 1861 Solano. The proposal had already been passed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the antennas will be stealth disguised. The primary coverage area will be the top end of Solano and the Thousand Oaks neighborhood with perhaps just a block or two of the easternmost section of Albany along Solano. That still leaves almost all of central Albany without AT&T coverage. The resubmitted proposal for 1035 San Pablo Avenus will cover the south and western part of the City. Berkeley is indeed proving to be a more reliable community for processing wireless applications. Although coverage in the hills is nonetheless very spotty, with the addition of the Oaks facility AT&T will have 15 sites in Berkeley. ...and in contrast AT&T has ZERO sites in Albany.
Caryl O'Keefe November 10, 2012 at 04:22 AM
@Jim – I know nothing about the relationship between Richmond and Chevron, so have no idea about its comparability to anything. My post was limited to some specifics about the Sierra Club PAC in Albany,in response to your mention of ignorance of specifics.
Jim Beller November 10, 2012 at 04:38 AM
Caryl, Chevron made a documented $1.2 million contribution to a committee backing three Richmond candidates, two of whom were elected. Put the Sierra Club's participation in our elections in perspective, please!
Ross Stapleton-Gray November 10, 2012 at 06:13 AM
AT&T owns that building on Solano across from the Subway, yes? I'm guessing that the Albany zoning wouldn't permit them siting antennas on it to cover at least a portion of the eastern part of town? (I've always wondered what's in there... I'd think that changes in technology might mean that what was housed there 20-30 years ago could be replaced by a few racks of modern switches.)
Cathy Gumina Odom December 09, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Yes Berkeley and Albany are awful for cell sites getting them approved. Also hard is The Presidio and anything near or on the Golden Gate Bridge. Each city, town, county had different restrictions, guidelines, rules, forms for cell towers. The contractors installing these know which towns are difficult and need to allot more time to tackle. I know because my husband is a contractor and he's been installing cell site towers for 10 years. His partner designs them, he's a licensed engineer. My favorite are the sites designed and built into a building so you can't see it, or a tree, or vineyard windmill. You're wasting so much time arguing when you could be making $1500/month/site in rental/lease to each utility on the pole, like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon. For four companies on one pole, that's $6,000 per month or $72,000 per year.
Erika Lockhart December 09, 2012 at 07:01 PM
I used to live in El Dorado County and, up there, they have cell towers disguised as Lodgepole Pines. Unless someone points them out to you, you would never notice them.
David Sanger December 09, 2012 at 08:04 PM
You are right about Albany and Berkeley being difficult Cathy, but putting wireless facilities on utility poles is not an option here and certainly would not be easier. As for "wasting time arguing," if the City had an easier process then there wouldn't be such a discussion, but as it is there is no alternative but to press for a better and more workable ordinance.
David Sanger February 18, 2013 at 05:58 PM
It seems that health fears are not new. Here's a couple of newspaper articles from when radio was introduced: "Why Wireless Telegraphy May Make Us All Toothless, Hairless and Insane," The Atlantic Constitution, April 30, 1911 http://earlyradiohistory.us/1911why.htm "The Danger of Hertzian Waves," The World's Advance, August, 1915 http://earlyradiohistory.us/1915dang.htm


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