Noe Valley Voice November 2010

City May Let Residents Block Ugly Antennas

By Corrie M. Anders

If the city passes new legislation regulating cell phone antennas, equipment such as these boxes at 28th and Noe streets will have to undergo a public hearing before installation.   Photo by Sally Smith

Residents in Noe Valley and other neighborhoods have complained for years about what they perceive as the stealth proliferation of cell phone antennas on public utility poles.

City Hall is hearing them now.

A public hearing will be held this month on a proposed Board of Supervisors ordinance that would make it more difficult for cell phone companies to install wireless antenna equipment in public spaces.

The legislation, introduced by Supervisor John Avalos, would require cell phone companies to obtain a special permit in order to put in the largest type of antennas. The companies also would need to notify nearby residents, who could contest installation of new antenna equipment.

The public hearing is set for Nov. 15, 1 p.m., before the board’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee. The measure advanced to the board after the Planning Commission unanimously approved it during an Oct. 8 meeting in which residents complained that the antennas were dangerous, unsightly, and installed without public notice.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said Vicki Rosen, president of the Upper Noe Neighbors. “We need to be made aware that these are being proposed” on sidewalks throughout Noe Valley.

The city already can set standards for cell phone antennas on private property, but federal and state laws preempt local officials from regulating wireless equipment on sidewalk utility poles and other public rights of way. However, the city has wiggle room on aesthetic grounds to limit such wireless equipment, and to require public notification.

Residents Tired of Surprises

With the rising popularity of iPhones, Droids, and other smart phones, wireless communication companies have been in a race to add to their network of antennas, to improve reception and ensure customer loyalty. Since 2008, T-Mobile, Verizon, and other carriers have gotten permits to erect 256 wireless antennas on public utility poles in San Francisco, according to Barbara Moy, a manager with the city’s Department of Public Works.

But their size and placement—the antenna equipment is encased in metal, suitcase-like boxes that hang about eight feet above the sidewalk—have been the bane of many unsuspecting residents.

“People complained that they’d literally go to work in the morning and come home, and there’d be this thing on a pole with no notification,” said Frances Hsieh, Avalos’ legislative aide. “It’s big and ugly and disrupts their view. They’d look out their second-floor living room windows, and there’d be these big boxes smack in the middle.”

Aesthetically speaking, the legislation would require cell phone companies to plant a street tree next to the existing utility pole to camouflage the equipment. The most significant part of the proposal, however, would give the public a voice in whether a company could get a permit for the installations.

Equipment Size Matters

The measure creates a three-tiered approval system based on the size and location of the aerials.

In the first tier—for antennas that are less than four feet in height, with very little             visual impact—a company could obtain a permit without a public hearing. However, neighbors would be promptly notified and could challenge the approval before the Board of Permit Appeals.

Tier two requests, for slightly bigger antennas or for transmitters located adjacent to parks or historical resources, would undergo additional Planning Department scrutiny.

To obtain a permit for the bulkiest antennas (tier three), cell phone companies would need to notify nearby residents as soon as they submitted their applications. Residents also would have the opportunity to protest (or support) the equipment at a required public hearing. The boxy antennas on a pole at 28th and Noe streets would fall under this category.

Still, some anti-antenna activists consider the legislation too puny.

“We think the legislation should be further strengthened,” said Loranger, a co-founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union (SNAFU). “It essentially allows tier one anywhere in the city without oversights.”

Data Creating a Buzz

At last month’s Planning Commission meeting, likely a preview of the supervisors’ hearings, cell phone companies urged officials to slow down and look for alternatives to the legislation.

An attorney representing Verizon and AT&T said there was a “tremendous” need for new cell phone equipment in San Francisco.

“The data demands have increased 5,000 percent in the last three years,” the spokesman said. “Verizon’s wireless data demands are increasing 300 percent a year. The need is in the neighborhoods, and the logical place to put the facilities is in the right of way.”

But Glen Park resident Wendy Robinson said her own experience showed the proposed measure was long overdue. Robinson said she returned to her Randall Street home a few months ago to find four large boxes the size of microwave ovens on a utility pole eight feet off the ground.

“It’s horrendous,” said Robinson, who got 60 to 70 neighbors to sign a petition complaining about the antenna package. “It buzzes and crackles 24/7. When I close my front door, I can still hear it inside my house. Talking with a neighbor or anyone in front of my house has the soundtrack to it of a saw.”

Call Back on Safety Issue

Several speakers also grumbled that Avalos’ legislation didn’t address the environmental and safety hazards that antenna equipment pose. Overloaded poles can topple in earthquakes or high winds and start fires, as happened in Malibu three years ago. And there’s an inherent danger that lead-acid backup batteries on the equipment could result in electrical arcings, short circuits, and fires.

Hsieh said those health and safety concerns would be addressed later.

“We realize there is a very valid and serious concern, and I think we’d like to look at it separately,” she said. “We think it warrants its own piece of legislation rather than trying to squish it into this legislation. It’s a big issue on its own.”