By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
More than 20 parents, community members, and one child asked the Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday to ban the deployment of 5G antennas—a non-starter because the city is preempted from taking such action under federal law.
The City Council asked staff to propose guidelines for where and how 5G antennas are installed based on aesthetics and the city’s very-high wildfire risk.
“We’re at the beginning point here of trying to adopt a new ordinance that will take into account—to the maximum extent we can under the law—the concerns we all have regarding aesthetics, regarding placement, regarding construction, [and] regarding the modification of facilities,” said Mayor Bob Whalen. “We’re not trying to create a system where we’re saying everybody bring in your 5G and put it on every street corner.”
City staffers will craft new rules that limit view corridor encroachment by cellular infrastructure, prohibit antennas from being installed at ground level, minimize the installation of new vertical infrastructure in the public right of way, and co-locate antennas serving multiple service providers on existing street lights. The City Council also expressed a willingness to set minimum spacing limits between new cell sites.
The city would need to be careful when establishing minimum spacing requirements to avoid an “effective prohibition of service,” said Travis Van Lighten, an associate with Rutan & Tucker advising the city on telecommunications.
Laguna Beach officials face a ticking clock in adopting new regulations because telecommunications companies with open applications have agreed to let the city miss federally-mandated 60- and 90-day deadlines to rule modifying or installing cell sites. Typically, federal law allows companies to move forward with construction if city governments fail to make a decision within the allowed time frames.
In February 2020, a panel with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in a consolidated federal case involving 90 cities across the country challenging the Federal Communication Commission’s broad preemption of municipal governments’ ability to regulate cellular infrastructure. The League of California Cities is also a party to that case, Van Lighten said.
Councilmember Toni Iseman hammered city staffers and consultants with questions seemingly with a single goal—learning how the city can legally prevent 5G antennas from being deployed. She was particularly disappointed that the city hasn’t added its voice in support of the coalition suing the FCC.
“Keeping appraised and cherry-picking the best of what other cities are doing are different things,” she said.
Councilmember Sue Kempf said she wants city staffers to explore guidelines for preventing the installation of new cell antennas in residential neighborhoods protected by fuel modification zones and have narrow streets that impair access for firefighting apparatus.
“That to me should be a pretty good mitigating factor in terms of where we can place these things,” Kempf said.
Laguna Beach resident Brittney Silva pointed out that no residents spoke in support of the telecommunications companies rolling out 5G.
“Where does the responsibility lie if a pole falls over and starts a fire or falls on a house?” Silva said.
Laguna Beach resident Tali Bowen said its within the jurisdiction of city governments to deny the installation of cell antennas on top of schools, fire stations, hospitals, and residential areas.
“In the past, the PTA fought hard to keep a tower off of El Morro Elementary School and it was able to at least move it farther away,” Bowen said. “And here we are where history repeats itself and we’re showing up in greater numbers.”
There are no 5G cell antennas in Laguna Beach and no pending applications to install them, city staffers said.
Matt Lawson, chair of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee, said Wednesday that 5G will be critically important for Laguna Beach residents to communicate with first responders and for public safety agencies to prevent wildfires through drone reconnaissance.
While Lawson said he respects others’ opinions on 5G, he feels people need to fact check the scientific studies they’re citing about the negative impacts of electromagnetic frequency exposure.
“I have a difficult time understanding why people who use mobile [radio frequency] devices, pagers and cell phones, are suddenly so concerned about 5G,” Lawson said. “Not all hazards are equal and I haven’t seen that 5G constitutes a hazard.”
Rep. Harley Rouda told the Indy he believes “5G technology is the next step in advancing the wireless capabilities needed to drive innovation and the future of our economy.”
“Municipalities play a key role in developing effective 5G wireless infrastructure, and The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations should not limit the ability of local governments to regulate small cell sites necessary for the deployment of 5G,” Rouda said.
The proposed regulations on installing and modifying cell antennas are anticipated to come before the Planning Commission in January 2020.