Three years ago, a group of North Berkeley residents celebrated when plans for a Verizon cell site in their neighborhood were dropped.
They’d fought the application for an eight-antenna “wireless communication facility” on top of an apartment building, at 1615 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, from the time it first was proposed in 2014. Verizon abandoned the plan in 2017, after the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), rejected the application.
Today, many of the same people are back at it. Verizon has applied to the city for a use permit to place 12 antennas (a 4G small cell site) on top of the Lawrence Moore Manor, a senior residence at 1909 Cedar St., less than a block from its earlier attempt. The nonprofit Satellite Affordable Senior Homes (SAHA) runs the facility under a contract with the city.
“They’re proposing the same thing only bigger, only steps away from where we fought it,” said Yuko Fukami, who lives on Bonita Street near the proposed site.
The antennas would be placed inside wall panels in two locations on the building’s roof and require some height extension.
“In Berkeley, we are installing 4G LTE small cells to improve wireless coverage and add capacity to handle increased traffic,” confirmed Heidi Flato, a spokesperson from Verizon.
The application, filed in December 2019, mentions the failed earlier proposal, essentially saying the company is trying again because of “congestion” in Verizon’s cell network, particularly in North Berkeley. That congestion can “result in the inability for wireless devices to access the network and can also lead to poor call quality, timed out connections, handoff failures, and dropped calls,” reads the application cover letter.
“With a willing landlord and more architectural details on the rooftop that would help stealth Verizon’s proposed equipment, Verizon chose to move forward with the 1909 Cedar Street building to provide the coverage and capacity needed in the North Berkeley area,” it goes on.
Verizon is slated to hold a community meeting on its plans in mid-March.
Most neighbors’ concerns, now and with the earlier proposal, are about potential health impacts, aesthetics, noise and view blockage.
“Most of the reasons for opposing the tower at 1615 MLK are relevant at this new location, including, but not limited to, the fact that it is a residential neighborhood that is a few blocks away from a commercial area (Shattuck) that would be much better suited for this type of tower, the proximity to a preschool … and the negative impact on property values a tower such as this would have,” Elana Auerbach, who lives on Bonita Avenue, said in an email.
Cities have limited regulatory authority
However local jurisdictions, such as cities, have limited authority over wireless installation.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates telecommunications, including wireless technology infrastructure.
Local jurisdictions, such as cities, have limited authority over wireless installation.
Cities can’t base permit decisions on health or environmental impacts, can’t discriminate among providers, and can’t make decisions in a manner that effectively prohibits wireless service. They also must act on cell applications within specific time periods – called a shot clock.
Berkeley’s municipal code, however, regulates some aspects of wireless facilities on private property. This includes enforcing height limits, noise limits and requiring screening or camouflaging. Telecommunication companies must also document coverage gaps or the need for new equipment, and show they’ve explored alternative sites, and are choosing a location with the least negative impacts on the neighborhood.
The city also has wireless communication guidelines covering equipment in the city’s public right-of-way versus private property. Cities have even less authority for cell sites in utility right-of-ways such as on PG&E power poles.
With the earlier Verizon application, for 1615 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the ZAB’s denial was based on parking, views, intensity of use and visual impacts. Verizon didn’t appeal.
The FCC issued new rules in 2018 further limiting the power of local jurisdictions to regulate wireless equipment. The rules, among other things, tighten the “shot clock,” or time cities have to respond to new applications, and limit the fees local governments can charge for applications.
Matthai Chakko, city of Berkeley spokesman, said the city is still evaluating these changes and plans to present information to the City Council on March 17.
“So many things are in flux,” Chakko said. “City staff is still in the process of analyzing these issues.”
Enter 5G, and associated health concerns
The new FCC rules are intended to make it easier for companies to upgrade their systems to 5G, or fifth-generation cellular wireless.
Rolling out in mainly major cities, 5G promises to be faster with greater capacity than 4G, though it’s too early to really know its full consumer impact. There are different versions of 5G, and much refinement and jockeying for customers is expected over the next few years.
5G is highly controversial, mainly because of fears of the health effects of electromagnetic radiation. It uses higher frequency bandwidths (as well as lower and mid-level) across the radio frequency spectrum.
Groups opposing 5G are organizing in local communities to block installation, including in the Bay Area. Mill Valley and Sebastopol are among local cities trying to block 5G, at least until there is more research. The EMF Safety Network is one organization leading grassroots opposition. While some laud its work, others criticize it as scientifically shaky.
Activists in Berkeley are also organizing to restrict 5G. Joel Moskowitz, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, is a common name in international efforts to curb 5G, and an advisor to EMF Scientist, an organization of electromagnetic radiation scientists calling on the United Nations and other bodies to reassess exposure limits. Berkeley council members Ben Bartlett and Cheryl Davila held a 5G workshop in January.
Scientists are split on the risks.
The FCC and the World Health Organization (WHO) maintain that exposure to radio frequency at currently allowed levels is safe, including from 5G networks. The WHO is involved in ongoing research on the issue.
The City Council will discuss 5G at its March 17 meeting, especially in light of the FCC’s evolving rules, said Chakko.
“It changes the landscape, which is part of what we’re responding to,” he said
Verizon has not announced plans to launch 5G in Berkeley, said Flato, the company spokeswoman. “I’ll be sure to let you know when we have news to share,” she said
At the same time, in her email she wrote: “Verizon’s 4G LTE small cell (densification) strategy across the nation we began implementing years ago is paving the way for adding 5G small cells in metro areas.” Small cell equipment is also used for 5G.
Berkeleyside asked Flato to send a list showing Verizon wants to add small cells in Berkeley, but had not received anything at publication time.
A perusal of city zoning applications shows several other Verizon cell site applications in the works. This includes applications for rooftop small cell facilities at 2607 Ellsworth St. (Feb. 2, 2020 — pending) and 2398 Bancroft Way (Dec. 20, 2018 — approved).
Last summer, the Zoning Adjustments Board denied a permit for a 50-ft. Verizon cell tower at Berryman Reservoir on Euclid – another hugely controversial proposal. Verizon appealed, but then requested a postponement of the appeal hearing.
Some opposing the new proposal for Lawrence Moore Manor said it’s a matter of social justice.
“The proposed towers would also destroy the residents’ peaceful and quiet enjoyment of their abode,” Phoebe Sorgen wrote in an email. Sorgen, active in the Unitarian Church near the proposed site, helped fight the earlier application.
This is also a question of social justice,” Sorgen said.
“They currently enjoy a lovely rooftop garden where one can watch the sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge. Why put the antennas on HUD housing where only seniors live and where there are disabled people who cannot afford to move? … Why not, instead, put them on the roof of English speaking rich people’s condos? Because the rich people would hire an attorney and more effectively fight it?! That’s not fair!”