Jessica Cejnar / Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 @ 6:37 p.m. / Community, Local Government
Though It's Limited, County Supervisors Exert Control Over Aesthetics of Cell Phone Facilities
Though limited by federal law, Del Norte officials are crafting regulations that governs the aesthetics of wireless communications facilities on county rights of way.
County staff proposes creating a resolution that sets standards for installing wireless facilities on existing utility poles. The resolution would also address the size, noise, color, ongoing maintenance and other issues pertaining to wireless communication facilities.
According to Deputy County Counsel Joel Campbell-Blair, county staff went about crafting the regulations after a telecommunications company approached them wanting to install small cellular facilities on county land.
“They presented us with an agreement to do that — conditions to an encroachment permit,” Campbell-Blair told county supervisors Tuesday. “That really didn’t offer us the kind of control over the aesthetics and the siting most jurisdictions like to exercise, so we started exploring an ordinance.”
County supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance, which governs the installation of these facilities outside the coastal zone. Campbell-Blair said he could also look closer at architectural standards that apply to larger cell phone towers sited out of the county right-of-way on private property.
The proposed ordinance creates a $200 administrative permits telecommunications companies will have to obtain along with a county encroachment permit and a building permit, both of which carry additional fees, according to Campbell-Blair. The ordinance also establishes a $270 recurring fee, which will be enough to cover county costs for inspecting, siting and reviewing the design and checking up on those facilities, Campbell-Blair told supervisors.
According to Campbell-Blair, the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prevents local jurisdictions from prohibiting telecommunications companies from establishing facilities in their area. Local jurisdictions also can’t regulate radio frequency emissions that come from those facilities, Campbell-Blair said.
State law also requires local jurisdictions to allow telephone companies to use their space as long as it doesn’t incommode the public use, Campbell-Blair said. As long as they weren’t blocking people’s traffic, they could have free access to public property, he said.
“A couple of years ago, there was a case that being really ugly incommodes the public use of highways because driving and the scenic resources of a highway are as important as anything else,” Campbell-Blair told supervisors. “This opened up a lot of aesthetic regulation for local government and that is what we’re trying to do here.”
The county’s ordinance allows wireless communications equipment to be attached to existing utility poles, traffic signals and streetlights. It also allows for the installing of freestanding wireless “monopoles.” Requirements for monopoles include them being located at least 250 feet away from other monopoles and sited in such a way as to not impede or hinder pedestrian or vehicular travel.
Campbell-Blair said the company that approached the county proposed installing their wireless facilities on streetlights they would build.
“The issue then is do we want a streetlight in a place that’s otherwise dark?” He said. “It’s light pollution. Some people like dark rural streets. It’s in our discretion to decide.”
The optimal solution to the issue would be to have the wireless facilities be installed on existing utility poles, Campbell-Blair said. But Pacific Power owns those poles and the county “can’t make Pacific Power let them,” he said.
Board Chair Gerry Hemmingsen said some of his constituents in District 4 want streetlights. He proposed getting together with the community to determine where they want those lights.
According to Campbell-Blair, the company has proposed installing lights in the Bertsch Tract and on Northcrest Drive near Madison Avenue just north of Crescent City limits. Staff is working on creating a “uniform idea” for how to deal with the monopoles, streetlights and other communications facilities so they don’t end up with a haphazard arrangement, he said.
“It’s hard to make a consistent plan for the whole community when we have both limited authority and a limited economic push,” Campbell-Blair said. “If you’re San Diego, you can say, ‘OK, everybody’s coming in and they’re building these things and we have leverage. We can have a uniform plan and we can make them all look like palm trees if we want.’ We don’t have that same luxury.”
District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard brought up larger cell phone towers, saying that when he served on the county planning commission they debated their aesthetics. Howard noted that the ordinance appears to leave a lot of discretion over aesthetics up to county staff.
Campbell-Blair noted that it’s easier for staff to deal with proposed wireless communication equipment siting and aesthetics on a case by case basis. Having a blanket rule may leave the county constricted at a later date when it may want to negotiate, he said.
“The more complex the standards, the less discretion there (is),” Campbell-Blair said. “San Diego has pictures in their standards. But it still comes down to a negotiation at the time between the telecommunications company and the county.”
Hearing this, Howard said he’d like to have the Community Development Department craft a policy that is approved by the Board of Supervisors that addresses its wishes of having these facilities “hidden to the best of its ability.”
“Especially if that device is sited within the forest, that device be blended as best as possible,” Howard said. “For far too long we’ve bypassed this type of look for our cell towers in the community. I’d like to see that addressed in some way, shape or form.”
Howard asked Hemmingsen to consider bringing a discussion regarding architectural standards over requiring cell phone towers to blend in with their surroundings.