Supervisors decide setbacks for small cell facilities

Courtesy photo.

The San Diego Board of Supervisors approved zoning regulations for small cell wireless facilities which include a 300-foot setback from specific sites and no setback requirement from residences.

The supervisors’ 5-0 vote Aug. 7 also approved ordinance components related to avoidance of cluttering, avoidance of certain areas, co-location with existing infrastructure, separation between poles, placement of equipment on poles, preferred locations for residential areas, undergrounding of equipment and additional public noticing.

“It represents the best that can be done,” said Supervisor Kristin Gaspar. A Federal Communications Commission regulation on small wireless facilities which took effect Jan. 15 requires all jurisdictions to adopt compliant regulations and limits to what jurisdictions can charge companies for small facilities.

The county’s Department of Planning and Development Services developed a definition of small wireless facilities to define them as facilities where each antenna is no more than three cubic feet in volume. PDS also proposed a limit of 28 cubic feet for the wireless equipment and any pre-existing associated equipment on the structure and proposed a requirement for facilities to be mounted on new or existing structures in the public right-of-way with allowance for such facilities on private property if attached to an existing public utility pole or permitted telecommunication facility.

The fee portion of the proposed revisions will require all small cell wireless facility permit applicants to pay an issuance fee and place a deposit with PDS to cover inspection costs associated with the permit issuance, and the applicant will also pay an annual use, maintenance, and access fee for each facility.

The proposed regulations on the small cell facilities were part of a Jan. 25 county Planning Commission hearing on proposed amendments to the Zoning Ordinance, and a 6-0 vote with Michael Beck absent forwarded many of the recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.

The county supervisors heard the proposed changes Feb. 27, and for the small cell wireless facilities the Board of Supervisors approved the definition and a process for fees.

The supervisors also directed PDS to evaluate additional changes to the Zoning Ordinance and return to the board within 180 days.

“The purpose of today’s amendments that are before us is to implement the board’s prior direction,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

The FCC regulation allows jurisdictions to develop regulations related to aesthetics, but the small cell facilities cannot be prohibited. Other jurisdictions filed a lawsuit against the FCC regulation, and the county has submitted a letter in support of that lawsuit.

The Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits jurisdictions from regulating placement based on the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions (local governments can establish public safety standards for other matters not under Federal jurisdiction) and also prohibits discrimination among providers.

The new regulation requires the local jurisdiction to address applications within 60 days for facilities co-located on existing structures and within 90 days for new structures.

“The decision’s already been made for us,” Gaspar said.

Jacob added, “The bulk of the recommendations for consideration today are the best that we can do.”

Local governments can still regulate based on community character and aesthetics issue provided that all carriers are allowed to provide coverage equally. County staff recommended a 1,000-foot setback from schools, child care centers, hospitals and religious facilities. The Planning Commission recommended 100 feet of separation and the Planning Commission recommendations were approved on a 5-1 vote July 19 with David Pallinger absent and Beck in opposition due to recommendation of 100 feet of separation rather than 1,000 feet.

The 100-foot separation would have applied to residential areas as well as schools, hospitals and churches and would have applied only to facilities within the public right-of-way and not to facilities mounted on structures.

“It would be our goal to achieve a 100 foot buffer when feasible,” said Supervisor Jim Desmond.

The 300-foot setback approved by the Board of Supervisors also applies to Sheriff’s Department stations and fire stations. Public requests for setbacks from shopping areas, parking lots, and county parks were rejected by the Board of Supervisors as well as by the Planning Commission and by PDS staff.

A macro cell facility may have a range of up to 20 miles while the range of a small cell facility is usually between 160 and 1,600 feet. A small cell facility consists of a wireless antenna and support equipment including radio equipment, an electrical meter, fiber optic cable, and power lines.

The small cell facilities are for fifth-generation, also known as 5G, wireless communication, although they can also be used for fourth-generation (4G) communications. The generations are standards developed by academics and industry and are not based on numerical parameters.

“5G technology will make possible incredible advances like driverless vehicles and the Internet of Things,” said Sprint network project manager Mary Hamilton. “5G networks rely on the placement of small cells. They have to be closer in proximity than the macro cells are today.” The 5G systems will not replace the 4G wireless facilities.

“We’re going to use these cell sites to offload capacity from our existing networks,” said AT&T director of external affairs John Osborne.

The 4G facilities will be needed for cell phone, wireless Internet, and other wireless communications within a structure due to the limitations of 5G facilities.

“They don’t penetrate houses very well,” Osborne said of the 5G transmissions.

Jacob said that San Diego Gas & Electric is replacing wood poles with steel poles and advocated that any new wireless communication facility poles should also be steel.

The separation requirement for new poles is 500 feet in preferred areas and 1,000 feet in non-preferred areas and does not apply to facilities placed on existing buildings or poles.

Public safety conditions the county can regulate include physical obstructions, equipment on poles must be at least seven feet above the ground in all areas and at least ten feet in areas which allow equestrian activities. Any support cabinets must be clear of the path of travel and set back from public right-of-way.

Although the antennas, radios and electrical meters must be above ground to function all other equipment must be placed underground unless determined not to be technically feasible. The most preferred locations include industrial zones, commercial zones other than those with C34 (General Commercial – Residential) and C35 (General Commercial – Limited Residential) zoning, and special purpose zones. The least preferred zones include rural, C34 and C35 and residential zones.

Rancho Santa Fe resident Holly Manion is a real estate broker. She noted that aesthetics related to wireless facilities impact property values.

“There will be a taint to our local real estate industry,” she said. “We will lose real estate business if families cannot find what they consider to be safe homes. A house with a 5G tower directly in front of it will be unmarketable.”

Manion added that a 5G facility in a residential area would be contrary to the community character.

“We are about to lose what the community as a whole has worked hard to build up over time,” she said. “We do not want to lose what we have defended for so long.”

Gosnett said a functioning communication system was important.

“It needs to function flawlessly,” Gonsett said of the Regional Communications System.  “It’s a vital radio service to the county.” Gonsett is the president of Communications General Corporation, which measures broadcast frequencies and interference. Safety is a concern as well.

“From a public safety standpoint we don’t want any interference with our RCS system,” Jacob said.

Jacob said the county is dependent on the tech.

“People want this,” Jacob said. “Lives have become more and more dependent on wireless technology.”

Jacob was on the Board of Supervisors in 2003 when the county passed a wireless communications ordinance.

“It was one of the most restrictive ordinances at the time,” Jacob said. “It was a balance between industry needs while protecting the communities.”

Jacob noted that the county was sued over the 2003 ordinance but prevailed in court. She expects the ordinance approved Aug. 7 to be legally defensible.

“If we do end up in court I want to win,” she said.

The Board of Supervisors rejected suggestions for a wireless facility master plan, which was opposed by the wireless communications industry.

The supervisors, did, however, direct county staff to explore a master license compact which would enhance co-location efforts.

Verizon Wireless municipal engagement partner Michael Farraher noted that the average household has approximately 13 wireless devices.

“That number is steadily increasing,” he said. “The level of service will continue to degrade,” Farraher said.  “It is incumbent upon us to continually improve our ability.”