New rules passed by the FCC limit how much control local governments have over cellular antennas going up in their communities, including using health risks to deny applications, but the Watertown Town Council is looking at ways of regulating them.
Tuesday night, the Council’s Public Works subcommittee discussed ways to control what the cell antennas look like and how close they can be to homes. The subcommittee also looked at the cell antenna installations as a way to require better utility pole installation and maintenance in Watertown. The Council called the meeting after the Town began receiving applications to install antennas for cell carriers’ new 5G networks.
Under prior FCC rules, the Town had more leeway to deny a proposal. Locally, the Watertown Zoning Ordinance had a section about cell network antennas. The new rules, passed in September 2018 by the FCC Board changed supersede the Town’s rules, said District D Councilor Ken Woodland.
“Even if we don’t want it, we don’t have he ability to prevent it,” Woodland said.
Councilor Tony Palomba said he has heard from residents who are concerned about potentially adverse health effects of cell antennas.
“I have that thought, too. It is not out of whack,” Palomba said. “It seems like whether you don’t want it or you hear about detrimental effects (of cell networks) we [the Council] cannot talk about it.”
Several residents spoke out against having cell antennas in residential areas at a meeting in November, when one proposed for Palfrey Street was brought forward.
While the new FCC rules streamlined the process for cell carriers, and made it more difficult for communities to deny applications for cell antennas, local government has some power to regulate the antennas. Town Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli, who chairs the Public Works Committee, said the Council needs to come up with some regulations that will protect the interests of the residents, while also meeting the needs of the cell carriers.
Location of Antennas
The Town cannot deny a cell antenna applications on the basis of potential harmful health effects from cell antennas, Piccirilli said, but that the Council can make regulations regarding how close to home that an antenna could be placed. This would reduce the amount of cell waves to which nearby residents would be exposed.
The limit could be approached in a couple of ways, Piccirilli said. One way would be by creating a strict distance limit from which an antenna could be from a home. Another would be to tie the distance an antenna must be from a residence to the amount of RF (Radio Frequency) field people are exposed to. As a guide, Piccirilli looked at the limit FCC’s regulations, and one of the requirements for the application for a cell antenna.
One of the requirements states: “An RF field radiation calculation by a certified professionals that sows the proposed installation is in accordance with and does not result in human exposure to radiofrequency radiation in excess of the applicable safety standards specified in section 47 CFR §1.1307(b) expressed as a percentage of the Maximum Permissible Exposure Limits in 47 CFR §1.1310 and showing the distance calculation that is less than 0.5 percent of the MPE.”
To meet the standard of less than 0.5 percent of the Maximum Permissible Exposure to RF fields, the antenna would have to be more than 25 feet away from people.
Michael Dolan, an attorney representing AT&T, said that all of the company’s cell facilities will meet the FCC requirements. He also said the Town might be going into areas not allowed by the FCC rules.
“Creating an arbitrary percentage of any kind flies in face of the federal guidelines,” said Dolan, who recommended the Councilors check with the Town’s attorney before making such rules.
While the antenna would most likely be on top of a 30 foot high utility pole, Piccirilli said that does not mean it would be safe to put the antenna close to homes.
“We have apartment buildings built right up to the sidewalk with utility poles right in front. People on the third floor would have an antenna six feet from their bedroom,” Piccirilli said, who added later, “The people of Watertown should not have to remove themselves from a room of their home to be safe.”
Resident Barbara Ruskin told the Councilors that they should not set a specific number as the standard for safe exposure.
“The permissible MPE might change,” Ruskin said. “Remember how the (safe) lead levels changed?”
Piccirilli said he would recommend tying it to the FCC regulations, not have a specific number, so that if it changes the town’s regulations will also change with it.
Another resident wondered if the safe MPE level is just for the cell antenna, or also takes into account other things like people’s wifi routers, and the electrical meters on homes in Watertown which transmit signals. No one had the answer.
Dolan said he could have AT&T’s expert come to the next meeting to discuss MPE and RF fields.
The subcommittee did not decide whether to go with the distance limit or using the safe MPE levels, and will take it up at the next meeting on Jan. 29, 2019.
What Antennas Will Look Like
Another area which towns can regulate cell antennas is how they look. The FCC regulations said that for antennas on public rights of way, the Town can seek to “preserve the aesthetic character of and minimize impacts to neighborhoods and business districts.”
Two of the proposed cell antennas would go on top of the utility poles, with a cylinder around the antenna and other equipment, as well as an electrical box about halfway down the pole. The AT&T antenna is proposed to go on Coolidge Avenue next to the UPS facility and a second is proposed by ExteNet on Arsenal Street in front of the Watertown Mall. The third antenna, proposed to go on Palfrey Street near the intersection with Hill Street, but the proposal submitted to the Town by ExteNet calls for the antenna to be on an arm that comes the pole at a height of about 21 feet
Piccirilli prefers having cylinders on top of the poles. Palomba and Woodland agreed. Keenan Brinn, a representative of ExteNet, said about 80 percent of the antennas installed by the company are in cylinders on the top of a utility pole.
Also, Piccirilli said he would only like to see new antennas to go on utility poles on which no other equipment is located. He included transformers, cable boxes, traffic control equipment, and other items.
Palomba was worried that so many poles would be eliminated for consideration for cell antennas under that requirement. He asked Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon how many poles would still be available for antenna after those with equipment on them are eliminated.
“There would still be a lot,” Magoon said.
Piccirilli said the number of utility poles number in the 10s of thousands in Watertown.
Standards for Utility Poles
The Public Works Committee also discussed creating standards for poles on which a cell antenna would be placed. Piccirilli said Watertown has hundreds if not thousands of double poles, and has had problems with poles falling.
“Maybe not once a week, but every two weeks a pole falls,” said Piccirilli, who added that some of the newly installed poles lean significantly.
He suggested adopting a rule that cell antennas cannot be installed on poles that lean more than 1 percent off of plumb, or straight vertically. Also, the poles should not be too old, or have damage.
Piccirilli noted that while the AT&T proposal on Coolidge Avenue is on a new pole, the ExteNet proposal on Palfrey is on an old pole that has damage. However, it is scheduled to be replaced.
The Councilors voted to recommend the Town use the “Safe Harbor” fees for cell phone antennas. This would charge $500 for a single application for up to five small wireless facilities, and an additional $100 for any application beyond five. There would be a $270 annual recurring fee for each small wireless facility.
Safe Harbor fees also includes a $1,000 fee for each new pole to support one or more small wireless facility.
Another option would be for the Town to charge a fee representing “a reasonable approximation of cost.” This would cover cell antennas on Town owned poles, application and review fees.
The full Town Council will have to approve the fees.
Tuesday’s Public Works Committee meeting was the first of a series about cell antennas in Watertown. The next one will be on Jan. 29 and will look at the three proposals and make recommendations and discuss standards for an Order for Grant of Location.
On Feb. 5, the committee will discuss formalizing the fees, application and approval process. The three proposed for new antennas will go to the Town Council for a vote on Feb. 12.