Zoning Board Postpones Decision on Cell Phone Antennas for T-Mobile

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 09:46:00 AM

In a move that closely resembled past efforts to thwart cell phone antennas from being located in Berkeley, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) did not approve a permit for T-Mobile to construct a new wireless telecommunications facility on the roof of an Affordable Housing Associates-owned multistoried building at 1725 University Ave.  

The 4-2 vote in favor of the project was insufficient, with two zoning commissioners abstaining and one commissioner recusing herself from the vote. At least five members of the nine-member board must approve an item to pass it. 

According to zoning staff, the proposed project—which is consistent with the city’s zoning ordinance—will be back at the next zoning meeting to seek an approval. The project included eight cell phone antennas and related equipment. 

At the May 8 ZAB meeting, area residents raised concerns over the project. Zoning staff suggested the possibility of a mediation between Affordable Housing Associates and the residents. 

The city’s Land Use Planning Manager Debbie Sanderson said federal law prohibits cities from considering health impacts of antennas, and added that although federal law did not require it, Berkeley’s zoning ordinance allows local government bodies to consider necessity when it came to approving antennas. 

Zoning commissioner Jesse Arreguin stressed the need for an equitable cell phone policy, stating that there was a predominance of antennas in south and central Berkeley. 

“While the project is in conformation with the requirements of the city’s zoning code, the city needs to have a policy that cell phone antennas are equitably distributed throughout the city,” he said. 

“We ought to be actively defining how to find necessity,” commissioner Sara Shumer said. “What’s the bar? How many phone calls dropped? How many calls not made? To allow the carrier to define what it finds is an unacceptable threshold, and to define what they find is necessary, is to say we do as they say.” 

She said she doubted whether ZAB was the right body to answer those questions.  

“I think probably the City Council ought to be in the business of writing legislation which gives guidelines as to what counts as necessity,” Shumer said. “But I am very disturbed that we are not making any progress on that, which leaves us at the will and whim of telecom companies.” 

Sanderson said the burden of proof was on the zoning board if they decided to deny the project. 

The city’s Planning Commission is looking at a draft Wireless Telecommunications Ordinance, which the City Council has advised should comply with federal law. 

Verizon Wireless filed a lawsuit against the city in federal court last August for allegedly being in violation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, after ZAB and the City Council denied permits to install antennas on top of UC Storage on Shattuck. 

The Telecommunications Act requires cities to grant cell phone companies a permit within a reasonable period of time and allows the carrier to sue for unnecessary delay.  

In November, the City Council decided to allow Verizon to install the antennas, stating that federal law prohibits cities from denying use permits to telecom companies based on health reasons.  

The City Council recently voted against establishing a moratorium on further antenna installations in Berkeley. 

According to the report by RCC Consultants—the firm hired by the city to independently review T-Mobile’s proposal for rooftop antennas—the wireless facility will improve coverage and enhance 911 service. 

“We are acting as if we [the zoning board] or the City Council or the Planning Commission could set their own standards for a burden of necessity that would overrule the federal law,” said Zoning Vice Chair Bob Allen.