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Verizon proposes small-cell transmitters in Napa

Verizon Wireless is proposing to install "small-cell" cellular transmitters at 28 locations in Napa, with some units to be mounted atop existing utility poles and others incorporated into replacement poles.

More than a year and a half of constant agitation against Verizon Wireless, by a group of Napa residents alleging the company’s planned fleet of new cellular transmitters would raise the risk of cancer and other maladies, failed to stop the City Council from approving the group of 28 stations Tuesday night. But the oft-bitter debate may yet continue, and even spread to the ballot box next year.

Over shouts of anger and disapproval from audience members who had spent more than 90 minutes assailing the addition of new cell-tower equipment, a narrow 3-2 majority voted to allow Verizon to move ahead with an agreement for the “small cells,” which are a fraction the size of conventional cell towers and will be mounted to utility poles, streetlamps and new masts. The transmitters would be allowed to start working no earlier than August 2020.

Mayor Jill Techel, Vice Mayor Scott Sedgley and Mary Luros cast the votes in favor of the plan, leading various sign-waving Verizon foes to leave their chairs and chant “Shame on you!” and “Boycott Verizon!” on their way out of the chamber.

The small-cell project, which Verizon has said will improve signal and capacity in various neighborhoods, moved forward over the dissenting votes of Liz Alessio and Doris Gentry. Alessio declined to accept the package without further safeguards such as monthly monitoring of radio emission levels from each cell.

“I oppose this based on the research,” said Gentry, referring to studies cited by some Verizon opponents, although she put less blame on the company and more on users’ ever-growing demand for wireless services for smartphones and tablet computers. “We should pause with our finger-pointing. We need to ratchet down our lives a little and say less is more.”

Acknowledging the debate stirred by the project, Sedgley, while voting to retain the Verizon agreement, also called for Napa to place a plebiscite on the March 2020 ballot to let residents state whether they support fighting the federal limits on regulating wireless equipment. Council members have until Dec. 6 to decide whether to pursue the advisory measure.

Sedgley, however, cautioned Verizon opponents against expecting a complete rollback of the wireless systems that have become a central part of life in Napa and elsewhere. “I believe that genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “It’s the world we’re living in.”

Such words did little to win over a succession of speakers who made repeated claims that the small-cell units – each with a range of about 1,000 feet, versus the typical one-mile coverage of a full-size tower – increase the risk of cancer and would harm honeybees, birds and other wildlife.

“I hope all the City Council members are fine with having them in front of their homes, but I don’t think you can protect yourselves morally if what we fear comes to pass,” Sharon Parham said to one of the repeated waves of applause as more than two dozen anti-Verizon speakers took turns at the lectern.

Neil Watter, a retired physician, attacked the rollout as “a mass experiment conducted on people who haven’t given their consent, and with no placebo. Roundup used to be considered safe by Monsanto; we should look at Verizon as today’s Monsanto.”

Published research on the matter has included a 2011 World Health Organization paper listing electromagnetic fields as “possibly” carcinogenic, but also American Cancer Society statements saying such radio frequency waves from antennas are not powerful enough to break the chemical bonds in DNA molecules, as gamma rays and ultraviolet light do.

Anti-Verizon signboards dotted the City Hall chamber’s audience area, including placards attacking future high-speed fifth-generation wireless transmission as a special threat to health.

Verizon’s application before the City Council Tuesday night included only current-technology 4G transmitters, and the telecom would need additional permits to install 5G units later.

The council vote in Verizon’s favor amounted less than full-throated support for a denser wireless internet and voice network. Rather, the council majority cited their determination to get Napa the most oversight possible within federal laws strictly curbing local regulation of cellular equipment.

City public works and legal staff have said Napa’s oversight is limited to the zoning, placement and design of transmitters, and have pointed to the 1996 policy by the Federal Communications Commission that bars local governments from banning any telecom equipment that meets federal emission limits.

Luros, repeating her stance from the council’s earlier debate Oct. 15, warned of the possibility of Verizon going to court to enforce its federal rights – and of Napa and other cities potentially losing all local control of such small cells if it loses.

“At least we’d have more control than we would have otherwise,” she told audience members. “It’s not ideal; I don’t think anybody is happy with how our hands are tied.”

Napa approved a general agreement with Verizon in December 2017 for the small-cell project but has required permits for each of the 54 transmitters the company has sought to install. The agreement with Verizon began to take shape this year, after a December 2018 letter by the carrier stated that Napa’s slow pace in approving 22 of the sites made them legal by default under an FCC policy limiting such local permit reviews to 60 to 90 days before they are presumed legal.

Under Napa’s revised terms, the city will gain another 15 days of review for each site permit. Verizon would be allowed to install the first 28 small cells as a pilot project, with permits not taking effect before Aug. 15, 2020. The city will not accept applications for more sites until the first group of cells has been installed and inspected to confirm they meet FCC radio emission limits. Inspections are to be paid for by Verizon and carried out by an engineer chosen by the city.

Four transmitter sites were dropped from the first group to be installed, including locations on Yajome Street near New Technology High School and on Old Sonoma Road near the Harvest and River campuses.

Techel urged Napans to accept, for now, the concessions wrung from Verizon and let the city pursue greater local control over small-cell equipment, as it has done by supporting House Resolution 530. The Congressional bill, introduced in January by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, aims to reverse federal limits on local cell-equipment regulation, and in particular to block the time limit on permit reviews.

“I’m a realist; you think I have options that I don’t think I have,” said Techel. “A lawsuit isn’t just ‘We lose, so we lose $500,000’ – it’s that all (Verizon’s) sites are deemed to be approved, and they can bring all of their equipment in.”

A group of Verizon Wireless representatives attended Tuesday’s vote but did not speak publicly, leaving city staff and consultants to make the case for the safety of additional transmitters. Public Works Director Julie Lucido said radio emissions from each unit would be no more than 1 to 2 percent of the allowed FCC maximum at a distance of 200 feet, and that each small cell would be 30 or more feet above street level.

While Napans may soon get to share their opinions on regulating wireless networks in their city, Alessio hoped that step would avoid the divisiveness that has marked other recent debates.

“I don’t want this to become a tech version of Measure C to split our city,” she said in reference to the defeated 2018 Napa County ballot measure that sought tougher limits on oak removal to protect rural water quality. “I like the idea, but I’m also cautious about what this would do to our city.”

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You can reach Howard Yune at 707-256-2214 or hyune@napanews.com

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.