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City seeks to control cell tower placement

SOLANA BEACH — When Solana Beach resident Robert George told City Council members at the Sept. 10 meeting that a cell phone tower was about to be installed in the public right of way that’s virtually his front yard, he knew there was little they could do. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 severely limits local authorities from regulating the placement of cell towers.
Had George waited a day, he would have had the law a little more on his side. On Sept. 11, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled its previous interpretation of the federal law, giving state and local governments more authority to regulate wireless communications facilities such as cell towers.
Fortunately for George, it appears an alternate, more appropriate site in a nonresidential area has been found. M&M Telcom, a Carlsbad-based consulting firm, worked with the Georges and the cell service provider to identify the new location. Doug Munson, M&M vice president and senior planner, said the ruling had no impact on finding a different site. It did, however, expedite City Council’s approval of the first reading of an ordinance establishing new regulations for placement and construction of wireless communications facilities.
The goal of the ordinance is to ensure that cell towers are built away from residential and other sensitive areas using stealth techniques whenever possible. Service providers will also be required to construct as few towers as possible to complete a network.
The Solana Beach law was crafted using ordinances in place in other cities such as San Diego and Carlsbad.
Preferred locations include, but are not limited to, existing buildings; industrial, commercial and other nonresidential zones; public rights of way adjacent to industrial and commercial zones; and public property such as city-owned facilities. In addition to residential areas, construction of cell towers will be discouraged in open space and residential zones, environmentally sensitive habitat, scenic areas and vacant land.
Unless an applicant does not meet federal standards, the city cannot deny a request based on potential health hazards to residents or the environment.
Service providers must obtain a conditional use permit that will be valid for five years.
In addition to the conditional use permit fee, applicants will be required to pay a minimum deposit of $3,000 for a consultant, technical plan review and staff time.
Munson, who has advised 12 San Diego jurisdictions that created similar ordinances, said some of the wording in the Solana Beach ordinance could “seriously limit our ability to have the flexibility to create” a solution such as the one used to find an alternate site in the George case.
He suggested a two-tiered process for creating preferred locations that “is less involved, maybe less expensive (and) less time-consuming.” He also recommended that before approving the proposed ordinance, council conduct a workshop with telecommunications representatives to discuss any limiting factors.
Although council chose to move forward with the ordinance, Councilwoman Lesa Heebner asked Munson to send the details of his recommendations to the city. Within days, Munson wrote a critique of the guidelines, noting “several inaccuracies,” he said. Munson plans to address council during the second reading.
Mayor Dave Roberts credited the ordinance for bringing “sanity back to this discussion” about the placement of cell towers. “Trying to put these things in people’s front yards … is just wrong,” he said.
“Whether it’s in the public right of way or not, if it’s in front of my house — and I’m sure I can speak for the rest of the council — we probably wouldn’t like it,” Councilman Joe Kellejian said.