A package of 32 Verizon Wireless cellular transmitters is closer to appearing on Napa streets as part of an agreement between the telecom carrier and the city – a pact Napa officials say offers the most protection possible within the limits of federal laws stopping cities from blocking such equipment outright.
Verizon seeks to bolster its wireless internet and voice coverage in various Napa neighborhoods with the use of “small cell” transmitters a fraction the size and power of conventional cell towers. An emerging agreement with the city would allow about three-fifths of the installations in a pilot program the company has been pursuing in Napa for two years, despite blowback from residents alleging that radio emissions from the equipment will increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses.
At the end of a 5 ½-hour meeting marked by numerous complaints by opponents, the City Council voted 3-2 to delay a decision on the agreement to Nov. 5. The city will seek changes including the elimination of two transmitter sites close to schools, more time to review permit applications at each location, and the use of an independent engineer to confirm each cell does not exceed federal radio emission limits.
“We’re really close to getting a solution – not where everybody’s happy, but where we can be a little bit happier,” said Councilmember Liz Alessio, who voted for the extension along with Vice Mayor Scott Sedgley and Mayor Jill Techel.
Verizon representatives agreed to delay into next month a deadline after which it would claim a right to build nearly two dozen of the small cells under federal law limiting cities’ review periods for such equipment – a right the carrier originally claimed last December.
A master permit Napa issued to Verizon in December 2017 covers 53 potential sites for small cells, but also requires a separate permit to install equipment at each location. In December 2018, the carrier sent city officials a notice stating that delays in approving 22 applications made those transmitters legal by default under a Federal Communications Commission policy setting a time limit of 60 to 90 days to approve or deny such permits before they are presumed legal.
Throughout this year, Verizon and Napa have negotiated changes to the project to allow 32 small cells attached to wooden utility poles, city-owned light poles or new masts. Verizon also would promise to not file more applications until the first group of small cells has been installed, inspected and confirmed to meet federal regulations by an engineer chosen by the city, and the permits would not take effect before Aug. 15, 2020.
The proposal delays installation of 12 transmitters whose locations came under heavy criticism by opponents, including at least two near school campuses, according to Public Works Director Julie Lucido.
However, Sedgley pushed for more time to win further concessions from Verizon, including a longer review time for site permits. “These deadlines are unreasonable – it would be all our staff would be working on, to meet those deadlines,” he said.
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The postponement followed a word of caution from Lucido, who said a 1996 Federal Communications Commission law prevents local governments from outlawing telecommunications gear that complies with federal limits on radio frequency emissions.
“We cannot prohibit small cells,” she told council members. “We cannot regulate based on radio frequency, we cannot discriminate among communication companies, and we cannot delay the processing of the applications.”
Councilmembers Mary Luros and Doris Gentry voted against a postponement, with Luros saying the deal as it stands remains preferable to a likely courtroom defeat if it tries to keep out the small cells entirely.
“To say ‘they can’t sue all of us’ is dangerous and an abuse of our fiscal responsibility,” she said before the vote. “… On the one hand we can do nothing, and the law says the permits are approved by default, and Verizon gets to put up antennas wherever they want. On the other end, we deny the agreement and Verizon sues us. The law is not in our favor, and we lose, and Verizon gets to put up antennas wherever they want.”
Such stances failed to mollify audience members such as Janna Waldinger, who seeks to block the arrival of a small cell near her Old Town home.
“The site at Division and Coombs streets is within 100 feet of my bedroom, so I want you to put a face on (your decision),” Waldinger, a cancer survivor, told the council. “If you say yes to this, you will know that I will be exposed to that, 24/7 and every single night.”
Published research on the health impacts of radio emissions has reached conflicting conclusions. In 2011, a World Health Organization research paper declared a “possible” carcinogenic effect from electromagnetic fields, while the American Cancer Society disputes that.
In August, Napa joined other cities in publicly supporting a Congressional bill that would undo federal limits on local governments’ ability to regulate the location of small-cell equipment. House Resolution 530, which was introduced in January by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, also would block time limits on cities’ review of such telecom permits.