Voters in the city of Napa will not see a referendum on cellular transmitters on the March 2020 ballot after all.
On Tuesday, the City Council scrapped plans for an advisory ballot measure that would have asked residents where they stand on the regulation of small-cell units, transmitters mounted to light posts and utility poles to fill the wireless coverage gaps between full-size towers. The measure, which would have been non-binding, was planned for March 3, the same day as the California presidential primary elections.
Vice Mayor Scott Sedgley suggested the plebiscite shortly after the council narrowly voted Nov. 5 to let Verizon Wireless continue planning for 28 of the units along various streets, over the vocal indignation of audience members who alleged increased risks of cancer and other illness due to radio emissions.
But on Tuesday night, he and other council members pulled away from the idea after agreeing that too little time remained to write and place a measure by the Dec. 6 deadline for the March ballot.
“March is unreasonable, and it might not prove to be what we’re looking for,” said Sedgley before he and the other four council members agreed to drop the advisory vote.
In a memorandum published Thursday ahead of the meeting, City Manager Steve Potter emphasized that a ballot measure would not seek to outlaw new antennas or defy federal regulations limiting local governments’ oversight of telecommunications equipment. State elections code requires advisory measures to include the phrase “advisory vote only” in their headings, to make clear their approval would not pass, repeal or change any laws.
Still in place is Napa’s agreement with Verizon, which the council approved by a 3-2 vote earlier this month, to let work continue on a 28-cell pilot project that would not enter service before Aug. 15, 2020. The city will not accept applications for more transmitters until the initial group of antennas is installed and inspected to ensure their radio emissions fall within federal limits. Verizon is to pay for an inspector to be chosen by the city.
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A general agreement the telecommunications firm struck with Napa in December 2017 identified 54 locations for small cells but also required separate city permits for each. However, the carrier in December 2018 issued a letter stating 22 of the sites were legal by default under a Federal Communications Commission policy limiting local permit reviews to 60 to 90 days.
A compromise between Napa and Verizon added 15 days to review periods and dropped four antenna sites, including locations near New Technology High School on Yajome Street and the Harvest and River schools off Old Sonoma Road. Council members who support the pact have said it offers Napa as much local oversight as possible under existing law, and have cautioned against triggering a dispute that could lead to a court battle and further loss of local control.
Abandoned by the council, the plebiscite idea also found no favor with Verizon opponents, who argued a ballot measure with no enforcement power would only give the carrier a bigger megaphone with which to promote a wider rollout of transmitters. (No Verizon representatives spoke at the Tuesday meeting.)
“We know Verizon has the resources to mount a glossy campaign; it would simply be another mandate for them to install their cell towers,” said Nancy McCoy-Blotzke, one of several speakers to urge Napa to at least postpone approving any small-cell installations and await legislation or court rulings allowing for tighter curbs at the local level.
While refining its small-cell agreement with Verizon, Napa also has joined other cities in supporting a Congressional bill to give local governments greater say in the rollout of telecommunications equipment. House Resolution 530 by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto seeks to reverse FCC regulation curbs, including the time limit on reviewing permits for cell transmitters.
Published papers regarding radio emissions have included a 2011 World Health Organization paper listing electromagnetic fields as “possibly” carcinogenic, but also American Cancer Society statements disputing that possibility.