With ‘hands tied’ County Supervisors approve small cell ordinance

John Osborne of AT&T holds up a sample remote radio unit that will be placed on poles as part of small cell installations.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously and somewhat reluctantly adopted its new regulations regarding 5G small cell sites on Aug. 7. Chair Dianne Jacob said the new ordinance is “The best that we can do”—aiming to protect constituents and communities while complying with narrow federal regulations to keep up with demand as more people’s lives become dependent on wireless technology.

“The intent is clear, to push the limits as much as we can under federal law and also to fight as hard as we can both on the legislative front and on the legal front in order to have local control back in our hands over these particular facilities,” Jacob said.

In September 2018, the FCC issued an order to remove regulatory barriers to wireless infrastructure deployment. With the order, the review of small cell facilities becomes more ministerial than discretionary as jurisdictions are limited in what they are able to charge for a 5G permit and local governments are limited to considering solely aesthetic and visual impacts of the sites.

Jacob stated that she and her fellow supervisors are “vehemently opposed” to any action by the federal government that usurps local land use authority.

The county has expressed strong support of two bills that would reverse FCC ruling: HR530 “Accelerating Broadband Development by Empowering Local Communities” sponsored by California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bill SB2012 “Restoring Local Control Over Public Infrastructure Act.” Earlier this year the county also filed an amicus brief to join other jurisdictions’ lawsuits that are fighting to overturn the FCC ruling.

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar said she concurred with the feeling of helplessness and the lack of local control for a decision that has already been made outside of the supervisors’ board room.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world when the community comes here, we can’t mitigate your concerns and then we get to look you in the eyes and tell you that our hands are tied,” Gaspar said. “This ordinance will not appease your concerns… it is my prediction that our residents, the industry and your supervisors are all not going home happy today.”

The county’s approved 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 ordinance also establishes a buffer prohibiting new 5G sites within 300 feet of schools, childcare centers, hospitals and religious facilities, fire departments and sheriffs’ stations.

The supervisors were forced to pull back the San Diego Planning Commission’s recommendation for 100-foot setbacks for new poles near residences. County staff did not concur with the 100-foot setbacks from residences as the majority of private land in the unincorporated county is zoned residential and buffers could effectively be a prohibition of small cells.

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 attached to buildings or existing infrastructure like utility poles. The sites also consist of radio equipment that is often compared to the size of a pizza box.

The lower-powered 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.

At the hearing, John Osborne of AT&T held up a sample remote radio unit at the dais. “They are quite small and not causing a visual blight if you have four of these on a pole,” he said.

Osborne said it is not AT&T’s plan to put thousands of the sites up in the county, he said they only have 24 nodes in their 18- month plan to help offload capacity as the need arises. “They’re not going to be inundating neighborhoods,” he said.

During public comment many spoke in opposition of the ordinance and small cell sites—Susan Brinchman, director of the Center for Electrosmog Prevention, requested that the county place a moratorium on small cell sites until they find a process that “doesn’t result in the county representing industry over its residents.”

Rancho Santa Fe residents Beth Nelson, Holly Manion and Susan Foster all requested that the supervisors include “substantial setbacks” from residential homes to protect residents based on factual safety.

As a real estate agent, Manion said the cell sites near homes will cause property devaluation and that the cumulative effect of carriers competing for coverage will damage the beauty and community character of every corner of the county.

“Poles will scar our skyline, historic neighborhoods, scenic highways, coastal roads and pepper our county right of ways,” Manion said. “They will be a blight…Instead of scenic views of mountains and sunsets over the Pacific Ocean, San Diego County will look like a pin cushion of cell towers unless we are able to exercise some local control.”

Representatives from Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and Crown Castle, a communications infrastructure company spoke out against the ordinance’s setbacks, which they said were really just “veiled prohibitions.”

“Left in the current state, the ordinance may cripple the next generation of communications that 5G will make possible,” said Mary Hamilton of Sprint. “5G technology will make possible incredible advanced technology like driverless vehicles and the Internet of Things..those will not be available if San Diego is littered with dead zones and dropped calls.”

Michael Farraher with Verizon said the average household has an average of 13 wireless devices, and growing and the proposed setbacks could create an impediment for carriers to provide service.

“It is incumbent on us to continually improve our network ability to shoulder the burden and demand upon it by virtue of the additional wireless devices,” Farraher said. “Our network will be continually burdened without the ability of small cell implementation where they need to be.”

Foster spoke out against the FCC’s “draconian directive” and spoke directly to the telecommunications lobbyists and attorneys who have threatened to sue the county if homeowners receive the “meager protections” of setbacks from their property lines.

Foster said while she understands the supervisors could not make decisions based on health concerns, she is deeply concerned that neither the FCC nor the EPA has conducted any study that shows that the exposure to RF radiation from 5G is safe.

“5G has not been sufficiently studied before being forced upon us and strong scientific evidence about its harm is being ignored,” said resident Mair Rathburn who said at some point, someone needs to be able to make decisions based on public health. “I’m no laboratory rat, neither are they, you, your children your loved ones. It’s too much too soon.”

As part of her motion to approve the ordinance, Chair Jacob recommended that the county draft a letter to the FCC to express concerns about the potential health impacts of 5G and inquire what analysis is utilized when approving regulations for small cells as it relates to health and safety and the proximity to residents.

“I greatly resent the fact that the FCC has usurped our local control in considering health aspects because it’s a questionable area,” said Jacob. “I’m concerned that 5G may cause significant health risks, I’m not convinced that it does not.”

After listening to public input, Supervisor Jim Desmond tried unsuccessfully to find a way to achieve the planning commission’s goal of a 100-foot buffer from residences, questioning: “How do we make it so it’s far from someone’s bedroom window?”

Mark Wardlow, director of planning and development services, said that trying to achieve the 100-foot regulation on a case by case basis would make the process discretionary, would be regulating based on RF emissions which is prohibited and would be an effective prohibition of small cells. He said in the least preferred areas -- like residential areas -- they will only be able to rely on the location preferences part of their ordinance, which calls for a separation of 500 to 1,000 feet between new poles.

“It’s very frustrating how we’re having to deal with this,” Desmond said. “Folks, we share your frustration, this is just crazy. We can’t do a damn thing here to help protect our own residents, for aesthetics, for health or hardly anything else.”