Dec 7 2017

Controversy Erupts at Council Meeting Over Wireless Communication Installation

Piedmont’s City Council met on Monday, November 20th, when the main point of discussion was the question of whether to approve the addition of a cell tower across from 314 Wildwood ave. (above Witter field, beside Wildwood Elementary School and the entrance to the dog park).

After a brief public forum and ceremonial kick-off for the Toys for Tots program as well as the Thanksgiving book drive, the Council turned to the issue most people in the room were there for – the cell tower. Although it is true that Piedmont’s code does protect the city against large, obstructing objects, if the Council finds that the benefits of the object outweighs the negatives, the Council may allow the object to be placed. In this case, the object would be a large “wireless communication facility” and the reason for approving it would be an apparent coverage gap in cellular service in Piedmont.

Before the members of the community were invited to speak on the matter, Sharon James, a representative from Crown Castle (the company responsible for installing the tower), rose to the podium. Ms. James remarked that in this day and age efficient cell service is a necessity. After Ms. James spoke on behalf of the tower, numerous residents stood up to protest the installation. Included in the more than twenty residents who spoke was a real estate broker who attested to the decline in property values if the tower was to be put in, a scientist who acknowledged the potential health hazards of having a tower so close to people’s homes and schools, and a lawyer who remarked that under federal law there is, in fact, enough coverage provided in the city. Many other residents continued to address similar issues about declining property values, health risks, disturbance to the beautiful aesthetics of the city, and noise pollution. The general rallying cry of the residents who spoke against the tower was “Don’t let the corporations win.”

Among these residents was Joe Ahashi* who spoke on behalf of his wife who was unable to attend the meeting herself. Previously uninvolved with the issue, Mr. Ahashi was playing catch up at and right before the meeting. He remarked afterwards that what he learned and what remains at the heart of the problem in his opinion is what exactly constitutes a “coverage gap”. “There are many ways you can measure a gap- based on what customers say, or what industry peers say. I want to know what was the methodology, how did they collect that information [etc.]”  And it is true that although representatives from Crown Castle claimed that there is in fact a coverage gap, many residents came forth with anecdotal stories of how they do not know of anyone who has coverage issues in Piedmont.

The real data regarding this supposed coverage gap, as far as Mr. Ahashi understood, was undisclosed to the public, making it a future plan of Mr. Ahashi’s to reach out to members of the council and ask whether this data could be revealed to the public. He said, “We, as citizens, should be able to weigh in, particularly if it’s going to really limit the city council in what they can do in future.”  Like most of the other attendees at the meeting, Mr. Ahashi was disappointed with the council’s decision to approve the structure. Despite the abundance of residents in opposition to the tower, Mayor McBain announced that in this case, the Council must not merely base their decision on the opinions of the community, but on the rules and regulations. With that thought in mind, the Council unanimously approved the measure.

In my personal opinion, the tower should not have be put up based on the amount of dissent from the residents who will actually have to deal with the disturbance in their front yard and by their children’s school. I do not believe it will make as huge a difference to every-day life as some people were arguing. However, the evidence provided did not seem clear enough to convince me that it was absolutely necessary.

by Claire Hanke, Piedmont High School Senior


On the evening of November 20 at 7:30 p.m., the Piedmont City Council met in Piedmont City Hall’s City Council Chambers. The principal issue on the agenda of the Council, which meets on the first and third Mondays of every month, was the consideration of an application to install a new, small-cell wireless communication facility.

Other topics scheduled for deliberation included the content of memoranda to both the Piedmont Police and Firefighters unions from the Council, the purchase of a new ambulance for the city, conditions of agreement with a company to redesign Piedmont’s official civic website, and the possible adoption of the Information Technology Strategic Plan.

Proceedings regarding the communication facility proved time-consuming, mainly due to the amount of citizens who spoke to the issue. During the recess that followed the discussion of the communication facility, I stole away from City Hall into the November night, but not before the clock hand had past 9:30 p.m.

The meeting opened with the Council unanimously approving the minutes from the October 16 meeting. The floor then opened for general commentary, which was followed by ceremonial proceedings: Fire Chief Bud McLaren announced the commencement of the annual Toys for Tots drive and Councilmember Jennifer Cavanaugh announced the Thanksgiving Book Drive Kick-Off.

These introductory matters did not, however, indicate the parade of boiling tempers and accusatory tones that would soon be slung from the small wooden podium on the eastern wall of the Piedmont City Council Chamber.

Planning Director Kevin Jackson began the discussion on the application for the new communication facility at the prompting of Mayor Robert McBain, by giving an explanation of the facility’s location, design, purpose, and where City Council was thus far in their proceedings regarding the approval of the facility.

The application for the proposed wireless communication facility, dubbed a ‘small cell’, is intended to be installed across from 314 Wildwood Avenue, near the Wildwood entrance to Piedmont Park. Site PHS 09 is one of nine “small cell” wireless communication facilities locations proposed by Crown Castle, a wireless infrastructure provider based in Houston, Texas.

The purpose of “small cell” facilities is to provide faster, more reliable coverage and a higher capacity to areas of dense population. Crown Castle’s Government Relations Manager, Sharon James, explained that the planned design for the small cell conformed to city landscaping and design regulations, and will function as an attachment to a street lamp. The street lamp was modeled after the fixtures on Oakland Avenue in an attempt to avoid corruption of Piedmont’s cityscape aesthetic.

Site PHS 09 was the last of the nine applications for  Crown Castle wireless facilities to come before the council, five of the previous applications having been denied, and three having been approved. Before even reaching the approval vote phase, Site PHS 09 had already been subject to twenty-six conditional limitations constructed by the city’s Planning Commission in accordance with state, city, and federal laws and regulations.

At the meeting, representatives from Crown Castle, the applicant, were the first to speak, defending the application. Sharon James provided statistics concerning the usefulness of thorough data coverage, stating that 77% of Piedmont citizens have mobile devices and 50% don’t even have wired lines in their homes.

The opposition to Site PHS 09 came from citizens voicing a number of concerns ranging from noise pollution, the dangers of harmful emissions, the degradation of park aesthetic, to the moral corruption of Piedmont at the hands of corporate capitalism.

Piedmont resident Sherry Newman warned against the possibility of a 20% reduction in home values near Site PHS 09, which realtor Anian Tunney, acting as representative for the residents of 314 Wildwood Avenue, repeated. Newman suggested a “citywide vote” that would enable the citizens to decide the fate of the application directly.

Former Piedmont resident Peter Harvey claimed he moved out of Piedmont after decades of citizenship due to the installment of new cell towers near his home. Resident Jeanie Alvis brought up the possibility of toxic emissions, and asked if an independent contractor oversees the annual testing of emission rates. The Council responded, stating that the applicant is responsible for the testing. Wildwood Avenue resident Indira Balkerson pleaded with the Council to “not let capitalism win,” and avoid endangering the school-aged children.

Up to Ms. Balkerson’s time on the stand, I had been relatively uncertain of what to say. I could see both the arguments of the citizens and the goals of the applicant, and more importantly, the City Council. There was also a particular facet of the Site PHS 09 plans that many weren’t understanding. A number of citizens who had spoken, including Sherry Newman, Jason Malk, Caroline Jung, and Emmy Wiesner all referred to the Site PHS 09 small cell as a ‘monstrosity.’ However a ‘site’ is exactly what PHS 09 is right now-just a location. No lamppost has gone up, as the plans have been awaiting approval by the Council.

Mayor McBain repeated three times that the structure currently standing across from 314 Wildwood Avenue was a story pole, the framework of construction, not the actual “small cell” facility.  Nevertheless, the word ‘monstrous’ continued to be used. To me, it seemed like the citizens demonstrated their ability to rabble rouse and convey threatening tones, but had shown up to do just that, without much regard for what either the Council or the applicant had to say, no matter how legitimate the response.

As much of the commentary seemed to insinuate the Council’s desire to put children in harm’s way, I chose to speak in defense of the Council’s character, stating that “the Council has an interest in maintaining the lifeblood,” or the safety of the young people, “of the community.”  I also referenced Ms. Balkerson’s claim that the Council was endangering the young people, and pointed to the unreasonable nature of her assertion. The Council, I noted, would never forfeit the best interest of the people who voted for them to adopt merely a single small cell wireless communication facility.

After the meeting, I spoke to the Crown Castle representative Sharon James. “We are here as representatives of the applicant,” stated James, adding that the problem with the opposition is that “both federal and state laws apply” and protect the implementation of a new small cell facility. James was surprised the plans were met with such strong objection from the community, admitting that she “thought Piedmont would be more open.”  The bottom line, James pointed out, was that “laws allow for telecommunication facilities.” “There are twenty-six conditions on the facility already,” James said, assuring me that Crown Castle would “address appeals with [their] legal department.”

 The result of the issue? Wildwood Avenue residents should anticipate the ‘monstrosity’ to soon appear on their block. Mayor McBain expressed on behalf of the Council, “we make legally defensible choices,” before voting in favor of the applicant along with every other councilmember.

It looks like in this match, with the backing of city regulations and federal and state law, Crown Castle captured the king.

by Andrew Hansen, Piedmont High School Senior

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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