Ryan McDonald

Council tackles rules for wireless

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The location of a current, non-conforming, AT&T wireless facility on a utility pole at 29th Court. Photo by Ryan McDonald

by Ryan McDonald

Hermosa’s City Council advanced rules governing wireless communication facilities Tuesday night, attempting to keep up with rapid technological change and an evolving regulatory landscape.

The council expressed unanimous support for a series of changes to the Hermosa Beach municipal code concerning the placement of the facilities in the public right of way. And they held off on approving a set of aesthetic design standards, in part out of a desire to make sure that they were feasible for the wireless companies who would be using them.

The updated regulations have been under consideration by staff for almost two years, and follow an even older dispute about the placement of cell towers near homes and in the city’s public parks. Since that time, there has been rapid change in the industry. Smartphones and tablets are approaching omnipresence, and are consuming rapidly increasing amounts of data. This has prompted service providers like AT&T and Verizon to develop new transmission technology, and to seek new sites from which to run it. Meanwhile, the federal government, which has preempted or restricted municipalities’ ability to control various aspects of providing wireless service, has switched its partisan tint and issued new regulations.

Gail Karish, an attorney specializing in wireless law with Best, Best & Kreiger, the firm with which City Attorney Michael Jenkins merged his practice last year, told the council that finalizing the regulations and getting the new infrastructure up and running could be a five- to ten-year process, because even more devices will rely on Internet connection in the future, including “smart appliances” and self-driving cars.

“[Companies] don’t have a business model for this yet, the Internet of Things and connected cars,” Karish said.

In some respects, technological changes have made the issue easier to handle for local governments. In 2015, the city’s Planning Commission rejected plans from AT&T to build two 35-foot cell towers in Valley Park, after residents complained about visual blight. The telecommunications company had sought to build the towers out of plans to replace an unpermitted installation on a utility pole on 29th Court. The utility pole installation was out of compliance with city code and had also drawn complaints from residents worried about proximity to the device, but the company said removing it would have created a coverage dead zone.

As the city tried to figure out what to do, technology evolved, and large cell towers of the kind that had been proposed for Valley Park became less popular. Instead, according to a presentation from Assistant City Attorney Lauren Langer, wireless companies are increasingly relying on “small cell” technology to deliver 5G wireless signal. Although supposedly allowing for faster connections, these devices are smaller and can be affixed to existing infrastructure, such as street lights and utility poles.

The change eliminated the disagreement over the cell tower — AT&T representatives at the meeting confirmed they were no longer looking for a site on which to build a large tower — but created new challenges, because the city’s rules for placing technology in the public right of way are out of date. Relying on rules issued by the Federal Communications Commission in 2017, city staff developed some design standards in a proposed ordinance. Although cities have limited ability to control where the designs are placed, they can control their aesthetic impacts, and sought to avoid both a repeat of the situation on 29th Court, as well the impositions upon ocean views at walk street homes.

But in just a few hours after making the standards publicly available on Tuesday, the city received ample comments from wireless providers and owners of broadband cable. Although they were grateful that Hermosa was attempting to keep up with the issue, they said the city’s rules were potentially in conflict with federal mandates to keep aesthetic regulations minimally burdensome in order to ensure adequate service.

“In the ordinance itself there is a lot of subjective language — ‘least intrusive,’ ‘as small as possible’ — those are areas that we would still request a continuance for us to be able to work with staff to get that more definitive,” said a representative of Verizon Wireless.

Langer said that definitions provided in the ordinance limited its subjectivity, but nonetheless agreed that the design standards could use additional tweaking, and promised to return with them at a future meeting.

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