At last night’s Palo Alto City Council meeting, council members held a public hearing to decide whether to approve or reject AT&T’s plans to install 20 new antennas on city utility poles after four residents had filed appeals against the plans.
Curtis Williams, the city’s director of planning, had previously approved AT&T’s proposal during the summer of 2011, but backlash from residents inhibited plans from continuing until the hearing.
The hearing featured inquiries from council members — as well as statements from Palo Alto’s director of planning, the four appellants, the general public, representatives of the Architectural Review Board (ARB) and AT&T.
“We all want better coverage, but I filed my appeal because I thought our city had some right to self-determination and the right to consider alternate technologies,” said appellant Paula Rantz. “Our power to determine the character of our community has been taken away by state and federal limitations.”
The ARB worked with city and AT&T to ensure the antennas and related equipment were aesthetically acceptable.
“We wish the [wireless] service to be allowed to come to the community,” said ARB representative Heather Young. “Service, especially in times of emergency, is a very important issue and our hope was to make recommendations that would allow the equipment to have as little intrusion on the environment as possible.”
Thirty letters and emails sent to the city, either in favor or opposition to AT&T’s plans, were presented for the public to read at the hearing. Twenty-four of the documents supported the plans while six objected to them. All letters and emails had been sent within the past week.
A noise report by Hammett & Edison, Inc., consulting engineers, was also available for review. Palo Alto limits “increases in noise levels originating from property” in residential zones to six dBA.
Most emails in support of the new antennas cited the need for improved wireless service and coverage, calling it embarrassing that they have so many dropped calls in this hub of the Silicon Valley. Those opposing the antennas referenced inappropriate placement, noise pollution, radiation, costs and the preference for a citywide comprehensive voice, video and data plan instead of segmented expansion like the AT&T strategy.
Councilmember Sid Espinosa brought up the possibility of this comprehensive plan. In reality, the addition of these 20 antennas is part of an expansion plan by AT&T that has the goal of eventually adding 80 antennas total in Palo Alto.
“It seems we’re talking about 20 antennas, but actually we’re setting a precedent for 80 [antennas], and this is without having that strategic discussion,” said council member Greg Schmid.
Council member Karen Holman focused her concerns on the aesthetic effects of antenna installation, asking the ARB why a truly artistic design is not being considered. Aesthetic concerns were one of the main issues raised by appellants and other residents opposed to AT&T’s plan.
“The reason I decided to appeal was because I was frustrated with the conclusion that the battery back up was a good idea. I think it’s the bigger intrusion aesthetically,” said appellant Tench Coxe. “The other reason I wanted to appeal was because I’ve been really frustrated the process, especially the way in which AT&T has pitted the city against each other over the issue of cell coverage [when] we are all in agreement that we need better coverage.”
The possibility of using tree canopy to help conceal equipment and the antennas on the utility poles was discussed. Williams confirmed that AT&T would have to pay for any trees planted. However, more mature trees that block antennas can inhibit signals that are emitted.
A similar hearing was held April 4, 2011 concerning the addition of two Wi-Fi antennas to the front façade of the Hotel President at 488 University Avenue.
In this case, councilmembers voted 8-1 to uphold the director of planning’s decision and approve a permit for the antennas’ installation. Stipulations included that the residents be notified at least three days in advance of the installation and that the applicant receive written permission from residents to install and maintain the antennas.