Council Takes No Action on Cell Tower Ordinance

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 12:51:00 PM

In one of its briefest meetings in recent memory, the Berkeley City Council deferred staff action on revamping the city’s cellphone tower ordinance Tuesday night, saying that city staff already had too many projects to work on. 

While the council generally lets out between 10:30 and 11, Tuesday’s light-agenda meeting adjourned at 8:30. 

In other action Tuesday night, the council appointed—without discussion—Zach Cowan and Jane Micallef to the positions of city attorney and director of housing and community services, respectively. Both Cowan and Micallef had been serving in those positions in an acting capacity, Cowan for two years and Micallef for one. 

And in a pre-meeting budget update workshop, councilmembers learned that Berkeley could be facing hiring freezes, salary reductions, and service cuts in the upcoming year due to a projected decline in city revenues. 

Earlier this year, upon recommendation of the city’s Planning Commission, the council made minor changes to Berkeley’s Wireless Telecommunication Facilities Ordinance, the city law that governs the placement and regulation of cellphone towers in Berkeley. In its recommendation, the Planning Commission said that a wholesale revamping of the ordinance might be in order, and Tuesday’s meeting was supposed to begin that process. 

Among the changes being suggested are setting up city-approved zones where cellphone towers can be located, a procedure that might spread the towers to more areas of the city, as well as finding ways to entice or encourage cellphone companies to adopt technologies that generate less electrical transmissions in their immediate vicinities, thus lowering the impact of those transmissions on surrounding neighborhoods. 

But after a staff report threw cold water on the ability of city staff to begin the work of producing a Telecommunications Master Plan—saying, among other things, that the complicated project would require two years of work and tie up staffers from the Planning, Public Works, Information Technology, and city attorney’s departments and cause either a shift from other council priorities or additional hiring—the council took Mayor Tom Bates’ suggestion to set up a two- and possibly three-member council subcommittee to begin to look at how the city might modify its cellphone laws. Bates asked Councilmember Gordon Wozniak to head up that committee and Jesse Arreguín agreed to serve. Councilmember Max Anderson—a frequent and vocal critic of cellphone companies—was asked to serve on the subcommittee as well, but saying that he did not trust those companies to work in the best interests of Berkeley neighborhoods, Anderson said that he would “weigh my participation” on the committee before deciding. 

While councilmembers asked the subcommittee to begin the process by meeting with cellphone company representatives, industry experts, and Berkeley citizens who have voiced interest in the issue over the years, in order to get back ideas on what technologies might be possible or desirable in the city, no timetable was set for subcommittee action or a report back to the full council. 

In its budget workshop, city staff members told the council that the city’s two-year budget was already calling on $1.53 million in cuts in fiscal year 2011, beginning next July. In its workshop report, staff said it is “now considering implementing these cuts sooner as well as identifying additional cuts.” 

Details of those proposed cuts are expected to be presented in regular council session sometime later this year.