County Planning Commission proposes buffer between new 5G sites, schools, hospitals

The county ordinance's proposed configurations for small cell installations.

On July 19, the San Diego County Planning Commission voted 5-1 to recommend approval of a new zoning ordinance for small cell wireless facilities, ahead of the rollout of the new antennas across the country to support 5G technology.

The ordinance is in response to the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) September 2018 order to remove regulatory barriers to wireless infrastructure deployment, “to help ensure the United States wins the global race to 5G to the benefit of all Americans.”

With the order, review of small cell facilities becomes more ministerial than discretionary as the FCC established maximum fees and application amounts and limits local governments to considering solely aesthetic and visual impacts. The order also established “shot clocks” for reasonable review time for the sites: 60 days for co-location on existing structures and 90 days for new structures.

According to Planning Commission Chairman Michael Seiler, the county crafted its regulations to comply with the FCC order while lessening the impact that the deployment of the technology will cause.

The county’s proposed ordinance seeks to minimize clutter and reduce the number of new poles by encouraging co-location on existing infrastructure, establishing separation requirements and setting the most preferred locations for new poles as industrial and commercial zones—the county’s least preferred locations for new sites are residential and rural zones.

The commission also recommended establishing a buffer prohibiting new 5G sites within 100 feet of schools, childcare centers, hospitals and religious facilities to ensure public safety in large public gathering spaces. The 100 foot setback for new poles will also apply to residences.

The ordinance now moves to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for review on Aug. 7. On July 23 (after press time for this edition) San Diego City Council will approve its own ordinance regarding small cell sites.

Representatives from the wireless industry expressed concerns about the restrictions of the county’s proposed ordinance regarding pole separation and setbacks, originally set for 1,000 feet but scaled down to 100 feet. The commissioners referenced communications received from Verizon and AT&T that threatened litigation over the limitations which may be perceived as discriminatory, unlawfully inhibiting the deployment of the infrastructure necessary to support 5G service.

“First of all I think this is a huge overreach on the part of the federal government and an intrusion into private neighborhoods. Many of us don’t like that,” said SD County Planning Commission Vice Chairman Doug Barnhart, who proposed the 100 feet setbacks. “Second of all, I really don’t care if the industry likes it or not. If you want to sue us, stand in line.”

Unlike the traditional macro cell towers that can be up to 80 feet in height and cover miles in each direction, small cells have three to four feet antennas that are often attached to buildings, rooftops or existing infrastructure like utility poles.

According to Rami Telleh, deputy director planning and development services, the small cells will work to stretch the existing macro cell coverage and add capacity in high demand areas. The existing macro network will not go away, rather the small cell facilities will work in tandem.

“What’s driving 5G at this point is networks are becoming maxed out for all of the carriers in terms of the data capacity that we can handle. So now we seek to provide relief and more data capacity and the best technology to do that is this fifth generation technology,” said John Osborne of AT&T. “(5G) is going to enable us to serve the demand from consumers, that’s why we’re doing this. We’re not trying to put these out there to put an obstruction in the public, but rather to serve the network and to serve the needs of consumers.”

The 5G sites are composed of an antenna and additional support equipment—antennas must not exceed three cubic feet and support equipment must not exceed 28 cubic feet. Height of new facilities will not exceed 50 feet.

Per the county ordinance, the sites are to be a similar color of the existing facilities, they are not to be placed on decorative poles and equipment will not impair pedestrian use, sidewalks or pathways.

The board of supervisors first adopted the zoning ordinance change in February and directed staff to evaluate additional changes and incorporate public outreach. The county received 80 comments on the draft ordinance during the comment period, including a letter from the Rancho Santa Fe Association.

RSF Association Manager Christy Whalen’s letter on behalf of the board stated that the move from a discretionary process to more ministerial review is to the disadvantage of local communities who “cherish community character and heritage.”

“We take the update of the ordinance for small cell wireless facilities seriously as their design, location and proliferation will affect the historical and cultural heritage of the 6,700 acres of the Covenant area,” the letter stated. “We believe we must have fair opportunities to review wireless facility plan proposals and provide recommendations.”

Seiler said that the shot clocks are meant to enhance the speed of the process, however, he does believe that additional public noticing needs to go out to community groups and neighbors within 500 feet as part of the ministerial process to make them aware as well as identify who to call if there is an issue with the small cell site.

The RSF Association’s letter also noted that the proposed 50-foot height of the 5G sites is in conflict with the Association’s Wireless Master Plan which limits the height to 35 feet—per the letter, the Association expects its community’s standards to be respected and grandfathered in.

During public comment on July 19, representatives from Verizon, AT&T and Crown Castle, a communications infrastructure company, said they generally supported the proposed ordinance with exception of the setbacks from prohibitive zonesasking that they be removed or reduced significantly.

Osborne noted that even a 50 foot setback in a neighborhood could effectively prohibit a carrier’s ability to cover that neighborhood.

Adrian Salas of Crown Castle said they particularly opposed the buffer around sites like schools and hospitals, “These are sites where a large number of people congregate,” he said. “These sites are in more need of good coverage and really robust capacity.”

The county received many comments requesting that the ordinance limit the amount of Radio Frequency (RF) exposure. One request even asked for a moratorium on the facilities due to the threat to public health and safety.

Federal law prohibits local jurisdictions from regulating the placement or construction of personal wireless service facilities based on the environmental effects of RF emissions.

During public comment, Susan Brinchman, the director of the Center for Electrosmog Prevention, offered her comment in opposition via voice recording as she suffers from electro-sensitivity. She urged the commission not to vote in favor of the ordinance until it restricts small cells in residential areas and also requested that the streamlined permit process remains discretionary so that public input can be heard within the shot clock time frame.

As members of Concerned Citizens of North County, Rancho Santa Fe residents Holly Manion, Susan Foster and Beth Nelson spoke about the “damaging” effects of RF radiation and asked for setbacks from residences to provide relief for homeowners.

Manion, a real estate broker, said she had concerns about property devaluation if 5G cell towers are permitted in residential areas without any setbacks.

“My experience as well as the literature and increasing industry norms suggests that any resident who faces a 5G or any cell tower near their property is going to experience devaluation of their property and difficulty selling their home,” Manion said, who also addressed concerns about the safety of 5G and its RF emissions. “What is it going to mean to the woman who is pregnant, the newborn baby, developing children, to the infirm or to the elderly if they have a 5G tower on a lamppost 10 feet away from their bedroom window? What impact is that going to have?”

Seiler said he wished the commission had the power to address the RF issues in addition to the health and safety issues, however, they could not.

During the hearing, Seiler reflected on how the purpose of zoning is to protect health and safety and general welfare of the public as it relates to land use.

He said the FCC’s ruling about 5G stated that it was needed to make things go quickly, to boost the nation’s GDP by half a trillion dollars, promote a new wave of entrepreneurship, innovation and economic opportunity and “help the U.S. win the global race to 5G by eliminating regulatory obstacles that threaten the widespread deployment.”

“This is kind of focusing on everything but safety. Right up front they should have said this is going to be a safe technology, it’s going to improve life as we know it today,” Seiler said.

He said the FCC is responsible for looking at things like maximum RF exposure guidelines and jurisdictions like the county are precluded from dealing with RF emissions and safety—they just have to trust the experts.

“We can deal with aesthetics, we can deal with proper placement and land use issues but that’s about as far as we can go,” Seiler said.

“All of us I think are very concerned about what we don’t know and how all of this impacts us, and we realize sometimes there is going to be some unintended consequences,” said Barnhart.

For her part, Brinchman said she will participate in the national 5G Day of Action on July 27, spreading the Americans for Responsible Technology’s assertion that 5G is “not an upgrade but a massive increase in involuntary exposure to wireless radiation.” Brinchman said she hopes to do anything she can to help educate the public, even if her local rally is just five people holding signs and passing out literature.

“I will do whatever it takes so people can protect their properties, loved ones and their health and safety,” Brinchman said. “We can’t just sit back and watch. It’s not business as usual and most people don’t even know what’s coming.”