Petaluma sets cell phone tower policy

Regulations clarify where next generation cell towers can go and set a 500-foot buffer around homes.|

As the demand for data and cell service increases, broadband providers are currently taking steps to boost the power of wireless signals by installing new cell towers and “small cell facilities” all over the country.

Rather than getting caught flat-footed, Petaluma officials recently took proactive measures to rework the telecommunications chapters of the municipal code, implementing zoning ordinances with strict regulations for when wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon try to expand in the city.

Last week, the city council enhanced a series of requirements approved by the planning commission earlier this year that amends the city’s guidelines for cellular equipment. Around Sonoma County, cities like Santa Rosa have been dealing with the fallout from construction of small cell facilities, which are various antennas that can be attached to utility poles and operate at high frequencies to deliver data faster.

“What we realized is those facilities weren’t addressed in the code,” said economic development manager Ingrid Alverde. “They’re new, they’re not defined, they’re not particularly regulated. Staff would have to make interpretations to determine how rules would apply.”

With Mayor David Glass abstaining due to financial investments in various telecom companies, the council unanimously adopted a series of stringent regulations that limit how close small cell towers can be to residential areas, and established guidelines aimed to reduce their physical and visual impact.

Each facility must be at least 500 feet from any residence and no less than 1,500 feet from another tower. Any ground-mounted equipment that can’t be installed inside the pole has to be underground within three feet of it. New wires must be installed within the circumference of the existing pole and aren’t allowed to add any height to it.

The council’s vote was followed by applause from citizens watching in the council chambers on July 16. Several residents expressed fears about the health and safety risks associated with increasing wireless signals, and warned of the ulterior motives from cell service providers.

My Street, My Choice! co-founder Helen Grieco, whose organization pushes back against the telecom trickledown into neighborhoods, said she had done research of her own and struggled to find a significant gap in cell service within the city limits.

“They want to make money,” she said. “They want to be able to have kids with their devices to be able to stream movies on every street and corner in our neighborhoods - at the expense of our health, at the expense of our safety, at the expense of our constitutional rights.”

City staff began working on the small cell requirements after declining a request from Verizon to explore the possibility of leasing space on city-owned utility poles last summer. Once residents started speaking out against the possibility of intrusive installations and cities across the country began responding to pending state and federal regulations, the planning commission called for an update of Petaluma’s ordinances.

A 2016 decision by the state Public Utilities Commission mandated utilities provide access to “any pole, duct, conduit, or right-of-way” they owned or controlled, according to the ruling.

PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras said there are approximately 90,000 poles in Sonoma County, and many are jointly owned by the power provider and various telecom companies. She did not have numbers for Petaluma.

“I can tell you that safety and reliability for our customers is PG&E’s top priority - first and foremost,” she said. City officials said there haven’t been any applications to install a small cell tower in Petaluma yet.

Still, there are numerous benefits to increasing the delivery of cell service within city limits. During the presentation to city council, Alverde and assistant city attorney Lisa Tennenbaum pointed to potential economic development since many businesses rely on capable wireless broadband. Residential areas would have access to 5G networks, and there would be short lag times for autonomous vehicles and the rare occurrences of remote surgery, for example.

Setting requirements now also protects Petaluma from pending federal or state legislation that might strip city governments of that power in the future.

“When the state legislation was working its way through last summer,” Alverde said, “it was our sense - not having read the full bill - the better our municipal code addressed the facilities and created the installation limitations, the better chance we’d have to respond within those short shot clocks and have a better chance to manage that process in a better way.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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