CA Mayors Oppose SB.649

Veto of Cell Antenna Bill, SB.649, Urged By Five California Mayors

September 22, 2017
by Dominic Fracassa, San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
Twitter: @dominicfracassa

The mayors of five California cities — San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Oakland and Bakersfield — urged Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday in a letter to veto a bill that would shift much of the power to regulate the placement of wireless communication equipment from local municipalities to the state.

Senate Bill No. 649 (SB.649), introduced by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, establishes a uniform set of rules that cities and towns would have to follow when considering a company’s request to install small-cell devices — compact antennas usually affixed to street lights and telephone poles [that also include refrigerator-size ancillary equipment boxes on the sidewalk next to every pole with an antenna].

Telecommunications companies such as Verizon and AT&T say small-cell antennas are essential tools in meeting growing demand for mobile bandwidth, particularly in dense, urban areas located far from large cellular towers. There are perhaps as many as 10,000 small-cell antennas in San Francisco alone, city officials estimate.

Hueso, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, has framed the bill as a way to streamline the permitting process, allowing companies to deploy the devices faster and improve their services. Creating a statewide framework for small-cell permitting, proponents of the bill argue, is preferable to the cumbersome process of getting permission to deploy the devices city by city.

But the legislation, which Senate passed last week, has been assailed by critics as an end-run around local sovereignty that sharply curbs the ability of cities to manage public property.

The five mayors said in a letter to Brown:

“This bill quite literally takes the authority over local permitting away from local governments and hands it to a private, for-profit industry,”

Many cities, including San Francisco, are also concerned about the prospect of losing out on millions of dollars of revenue because the bill caps the amount cities can charge to host the antennas at $250 per installation each year, in addition to other fees. Currently, cities could charge higher rates for antennas installed in high-population areas.

San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission estimates the city would lose $33 million over 10 years if Brown signs the bill. The bill would also throw thousands of existing small-cell agreements into question, according to Barbara Hale, the assistant general manager for power at the PUC.

“We have a process, and it’s been working,” Hale said. “The bill is a huge overreach. It puts the historical agreements into question and constrains what cities can do going forward, to the detriment of the cities.”

In April, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution opposing the bill. More than 300 cities statewide have formally opposed SB.649, according to the League of California Cities, transforming an otherwise tedious bill into a power struggle pitting the state and local governments against each other.

The letter from the five mayors state:

“This measure is a broad overreach of our local authority and will have significant negative impacts on our communities.

Our cities have developed reasonable regulations that balance the desire for rapid expansion of services with the need to protect public health, safety and quality of life”

CA State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, voted in favor of the after several amendments aimed at protecting “local decision-making” were added, Weiner said in a text message. Those amendments included provisions that would allow cities to establish design standards for the antennas and set aside space on city poles exclusively for municipal use.

Weiner said:

“The author accepted my amendments, so I voted for the bill. Asking for amendments and then voting ‘no’ after they are accepted guarantees people won’t work with you on amendments in the future.”