The Santa Monica City Council voted Tuesday, March 22nd, to uphold a Santa Monica Planning Commission decision allowing a wireless telecommunications facility to be constructed without additional environmental review.
Planning commissioners last year granted AT&T Wireless a Class 3 exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because the facility involves the installation of limited equipment.
AT&T is planning to install a group of unstaffed antennas on the roof of a private building at 3010 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica.
Mechanical equipment used to operate the antennas would be placed in a storage room on the fifth floor of the five-story building.
The facility complies with regulations established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), city officials said.
“Since the applicant [AT&T] has demonstrated compliance with the FCC regulations, the city cannot require additional environmental reviews to address the concerns about radio frequency emissions,” said Suzanne Frick, city planning director.
“The city’s authority to address the issue [of health effects] is preempted by the federal government,” Frick said.
Matthew Baird, a Santa Monica resident, led a group of residents and businesses to appeal to the Santa Monica City Council because they are concerned about the health effects of radiation caused by antenna radio frequency.
“A wireless communications facility is not what was intended by CEQA under this class of exemptions,” said Jan Chatten-Brown, a lawyer who worked with Baird on his appeal.
“The Planning Commission’s CEQA determination should be reversed,” she said.
Baird contended that the facility does not comply with CEQA because the cumulative radio frequency of 3,000 watts causes health impacts such as cancer and migraine headaches.
Telecommunication antennas in neighborhoods also lower property values, Baird said.
“This cell phone tower would be in direct violation of CEQA because of significant environmental impacts on the neighborhood and surrounding area,” Baird said.
“We are deeply concerned that the city keeps no database of the locations of wireless antennas or any other microwave antennas in the city.
“There is nobody to monitor the entire radiation spectrum within the city.”
The city hired consultant Jonathan Kramer to conduct an independent study to determine whether the facility complies with the FCC and review documents submitted by AT&T.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits local governments from denying an application based on radio frequency emissions if the facility complies with FCC regulations on those emissions.
Marsha Moutrie, Santa Monica city attorney, said CEQA prohibits local governments from using economic impacts such as declining property values when determining environmental impacts.
Kramer said the city could only determine that a telecommunications facility complies with the FCC.
“They [the appellant] are trying to bootstrap an RF [radio frequency] analysis into your CEQA process,” said Jeremy Stern, a lawyer for AT&T. “That is not permitted by federal law.
“The site complies under the FCC rules and is therefore categorically exempt under CEQA.”
Kramer said the city does not keep an exact database of where all the antennas are in the city.
The city only keeps a list of permit applications for antennas that were accepted or denied.
The facility complies with the FCC because the three antennas in the group that are used for cell phones emit 1,000 watts of radio frequency in horizontal east, west and north directions.
“The power levels being emitted are substantially below the maximum permitted by the FCC,” Kramer said.
“If they raise the power, the level will cause interference with their other sites,” he said. “There is no incentive for them to do that.”
Kramer also said radio frequency emissions are reduced by 25 percent each time the distance from the facility is doubled.
This means that nearby residents and people on Wilshire Boulevard would be dealing with emissions of possibly one watt or less, Kramer said.
Barbara Farish, a consultant who works for the InfraNext firm that was hired by AT&T, said wireless telecommunication facilities across California are commonly given Class 3 CEQA exemptions.
“Property values are not a CEQA issue,” Farish said. “The apartments that are adjacent to the facility are extremely low [in height] compared to the height of where the antennas will be installed.
“The antennas will be projecting out, not down.”
Without any legal reason to deny the AT&T application for a wireless telecommunications facility, five City Council members voted to deny Baird’s appeal and uphold the Planning Commission’s CEQA exemption.
“I don’t disagree with people who are concerned about health risks,” said Councilmember Ken Genser. “Consideration of those issues is outside of our purview.”
“I hope every document we were sent is also sent to the FCC,” said Councilmember Bob Holbrook. “People should share their concerns with the FCC.”
Mayor pro tem Herb Katz and Councilmember Kevin McKeown did not want to vote to support the facility but had no legal option to oppose, so they abstained.
“I find myself chafing at our legal handcuffs,” McKeown said. “We are being asked to blindly trust the telecommunications industry and the federal government, and I don’t.”
“I am concerned about the health,” Katz said. “I am not an expert, but I lost two sons to radiation-induced tumors.
“This wasn’t because of cell phones, but I think we should still question the radiation emissions.”
The City Council asked staff to bring back information on ordinances approved in San Francisco and Stanford, Connecticut that require annual testing of telecommunication facilities.
The City Council also wants to know where antennas are located throughout the city.