Berkeley City Council to Take Up Cellphone Ordinance Revisions Tuesday

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Monday March 09, 2009 - 07:39:00 PM

The Berkeley City Council is set to consider long-awaited revisions to its Wireless Telecommunications Facilities Ordinance at its regular Tuesday night meeting. However, the change in the rules governing the placement of cellphone tower facilities in the city will fall far short of the demands of some neighborhood groups, or even of the extensive revisions requested by the city’s Planning Commission. 

The council meeting will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Maudelle Shirek Building, aka Old City Hall, on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in downtown Berkeley. 

Neighborhood challenges to cellphone tower placement have become a staple of City Council meetings in recent years, and that is likely to continue no matter what happens to the telecommunications ordinance. In one of the few times that anyone involved in this continuing city controversy has made a statement with which all sides agree, the staff report on the proposed ordinance changes says that the issues involving the ordinance are “complex and emotionally charged.” 

The council put the Planning Commission to work in December of 2007 on revisions to its original 1996 Telecommunications Facilities Ordinance in response to a number of factors, including growing neighborhood concern over the proliferation of cellphone towers, a settlement of a lawsuit with Verizon Wireless, and Ninth Circuit Court rulings which put greater restrictions on the ability of cities to regulate cellphone towers. In the middle of the Planning Commission’s deliberations, the Ninth Circuit reversed itself, sending the commission back to the drawing board. 

There are widely varying opinions on the meaning of the new Ninth Circuit guidelines. Some Berkeley neighborhood groups believe that the Ninth Circuit widened the criteria by which cities could regulate the placement of cellphone towers, including consideration of such things as the health effects of tower radiation. The Berkeley city attorney’s office takes a distinctly narrower view of the court’s new decision, however, saying that the same restrictions on city regulations remain in place, and that the court only made it more difficult for telecommunications companies to strike down city ordinances. 

Meanwhile, the Planning Commission has sent what might be called “modified, limited” changes to the ordinance to the council without recommendation, with the request that the commission be given the mandate to continue working on more extensive changes to the ordinance.