City to Review New Rules for Cell Towers

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach City Council cautiously asked city staffers Tuesday to explore imposing new regulations on the installation of new small cell phone antennas amid growing fear from a group of vocal opponents, mostly parents, about the long-term health impacts of radio frequency energy on children.

City leaders are preempted by federal law from banning cell towers outright for health concerns because those matters are governed by the Federal Communications Commission, said Travis Van Lighten, an associate with Rutan & Tucker advising the city on telecommunications. In April, the California Supreme Court ruled that cities retain authority over the placement of cell antennas on public streets, including aesthetic concerns.

In response to questions about the health hazards of low-level radio frequency energy, the FCC claims on its website “the evidence for production of harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven.” There is disagreement in the international scientific community about the accuracy of this statement.

“My goal is to minimize them in town and comply with state and federal regulations,” Mayor Bob Whalen said. “The stuff they are throwing up on the poles is ugly, it’s terrible.”

The debate about the installation of cell towers hit a fever pitch last week when the Planning Commission was asked to review a request from AT&T Mobility to install a 4G cell antenna about 300 feet from that preschool at Neighborhood Congregational Church. The planning commissioners continued the matter until their June 5 meeting because they said they wanted to hear additional information and recommendations from the city’s consultant, HR Green.

Laguna Beach resident Brittney Silva said as a resident of the neighborhood near Cleo and Glenneyre streets, she’s concerned about the impacts the proposed cell tower would have on her 3-year-old son.

“I don’t want the city of Laguna Beach to be guinea pigs,” she said. “I’m asking you to think how you’d feel if these were placed in your backyard, neighborhood, or art gallery.”

Much of the fury about the installation of new cell antennas was directed at the implementation of the 5G network, but city staffers say none of the cell service providers have filed applications for 5G antennas in Laguna Beach. The typical 4G macro cell tower is typically two to three miles from a cell user’s location and offers download speeds of 10 to 30 megabits per second. The goal for the 5G is to increase that download speed to between 1,000 to 10,000 megabits per second, which would be supported by a network of terrifically high-speed fiber optic cables.

It’s unclear how many small cell sites Laguna Beach would need to complete a 5G network. In high-demand areas with high-rise apartment or sporting events, these antennas could be as close as 300 feet apart, said Dave Zelenok, a vice president of government services at HR Green.

Jesus Roman, vice president for government affairs Verizon, was one of several representatives from cell service companies who addressed the City Council on Tuesday. He claims the spacing of 5G antennas will be different depending on the location and in Laguna Beach partly depend on the city’s topography.

Tim Templeton, a member of the emergency and disaster preparedness committee, said neighborhoods that experience lack of service or dropped called are safety hazards that prevent residents from receiving emergency alerts during natural disasters. He argues that cell service carriers have an obligation to make sure their networks are disaster-resilient.

“At minimum, carriers must be encouraged to include adequate provision for battery and solar backup to power key infrastructure so that when the grid goes down, our mobile devices will continue to operate,” Templeton said.

Laguna Beach resident Chris Pettenaro said he’s supportive of bringing fiber optic cable directly to his house, but believes it’s disingenuous for cell service providers to claim it’s necessary for public safety. 

“For them to try to purport that the reason for them to try to put in these towers is for the sanctity of us trying to make 911 calls, fine, put in your 1X or 2G towers for us to make phone calls,” Pettenaro said. “It’s not a bandwidth issue. It’s not a data issue. That’s a connectivity issue.”

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  1. The ugly brown office building at 105 North Crescent Bay is little more than a structure to conceal the placement of cell towers. The owner is an overseas investor, building is virtually vacant, and it is literally PACKED with cell towers from a variety of companies. The building is little more than a fig leaf for the cellular operations that take place there. Will the current cell towers be replaced when the upgrade to 5G takes places or will they be phased-out? I fear the former, not the latter. The city claims that their hands are tied. We seem to have a council that is more concerned about businesses than citizens.


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