Legislation would overrule neighborhood opposition to wireless telecom equipment

By Gary Walker

If Senate Bill 649 had been law five years ago, Westchester homeowners Candy and Jeffrey Yip would be living next door to a cell phone tower.

Instead, they fought back and won. When the Yips learned of T-Mobile’s plans to install a 43-foot cell tower in their residential block of El Manor Avenue, they organized a grassroots neighborhood resistance effort and even got Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) on their side, ultimately forcing the telecom giant to back down.

But SB 649, currently wending its way through the California Assembly after clearing the state Senate, would essentially take away the legal authority of people like the Yips — and their elected city and county representatives — to oppose wireless telecom infrastructure.

In addition to prohibiting city and county governments from creating or enforcing laws to regulate placement of communications equipment in the public right of way, the bill would prohibit local officials from negotiating with telecom companies for public benefits such as free Wi-Fi in public parks and force local governments to approve telecom leases on public property. While the bill specifically addresses “small cell” infrastructure, it would allow antennas as large as six cubic feet and place no size or height restrictions on “ancillary equipment.”

State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), state Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) and state Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) have each opposed the bill. Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey) has not yet voted on the bill, and her office did not return calls for comment.

Allen believes SB 649 would seriously impede local city planning efforts.

“I think local governments should have the authority to protect local land use rights, and this bill takes that away,” Allen said.

League of California Cities legislative representative Ronny Berdugo says the potential loss of local discretionary control over permitting telecommunications infrastructure is among the most deleterious parts of the bill.

“This is unprecedented. We’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s a clear overreach by wealthy corporations looking for a handout,” Berdugo asserted.

According to the League of California Cities, 217 cities are opposing SB 649, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has joined the mayors of Long Beach, San Francisco, Santa Ana, San Jose and Oakland in signing a letter in opposition.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Westside neighborhoods, has also spoken out against the bill.

SB 649 was introduced by state Sen. Ben Hueso (D- San Diego), chairman of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. Hueso’s office referred inquiries to spokeswoman Tanya Duggan, who did not return multiple calls for comment.

Hueso received more than $68,000 in election campaign contributions from telecommunications firms between 2011 and 2016, according to state campaign finance records.

Government ethics expert Robert Stern, who previously headed the public policy nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies, said it’s not unusual for state representatives to receive that level of campaign cash from telecom companies, especially considering Hueso’s committee assignment.

“It’s normal, but it’s also troubling because people who are giving the money want something in return,” said Stern. “You have to recognize 90% of campaign money that comes in comes from people who want something done for them by the Legislature.”

Last week Bonin sent Hueso’s committee a letter declaring his opposition to SB 649 and stressing the need for local governments to control telecom equipment placements.

“The city must retain the ability to make sure that small cells are sited in a way that minimizes disruption and aesthetic impacts in neighborhoods, ensures the proper use of public property, and does not unfairly advantage wireless companies over other type of companies or technology that may provide similar services,” Bonin wrote.

Although Hueso’s telecom bill has not generated many head-lines in Southern California, Allen expects that to change soon.

“The pushback has started to coalesce recently after it got through the Senate, and I think people are looking at it a lot more seriously now,” Allen said.