Del Norte County staff presented its first draft Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors of a new ordinance to govern the aesthetics of wireless communications facilities on county right of ways.
Deputy County Counsel Joel Campbell-Blair said the need to craft the regulation came after a telecommunication company sought to install small-site cells or wireless communication facilities.
“They presented us with an agreement basically that they’d be conditioned to an encroachment agreement,” Campbell-Blair told the supervisors. “That didn’t really offer us control over the ascetics or siting that most jurisdictions like to exercise.”
So, county staff decided to explore an ordinance by researching other jurisdictions to set standards for the size, noise, color, maintenance and other details.
First, Campbell-Blair said staff learned they were limited by both federal and state laws on how Del Norte County could govern the issue. He said in 1996, the federal government passed the Telecommunications Act that preempted most of the field of telecommunications and wireless internet providers.
“While we can regulate it to some extent, we can’t prohibit it, pass any law that has the effect of prohibiting it, and we can’t regulate the radio frequency emissions that comes out of those things. We have to allow it. But we can assert some control over where, when and how,” Campbell-Blair said.
He added the county is further limited by state law that says the county’s public right of ways has to allow telephone companies to use the space as long as they don’t “incommode,” or hamper, the public use.
Campbell-Blair said staff devised a simple ordinance that creates an administrative permit to go along with the encroachment permit and the building permit. It also comes with an attached resolution that has design criteria, such as color, blending and height.
This will be a $200 administrative permit fee plus whatever building encroachment costs and a $270 recurring fee that the FCC says is presumptuously reasonable, Campbell-Blair said.
“We will generate a little revenue off of this. Enough to cover our costs for inspecting, siting and reviewing and the design and checking up on them,” he said. “We looked around at a lot of jurisdictions and I think this is one of the simplest ones. Some, like San Diego, are very long and complicated, hundreds of pages long, and very expensive.”
Campbell-Blair added additional rulings have changed how the county can regulate the wireless setups.
“A couple years ago, there was a case that ‘being really ugly’ incommodes public highways because driving and scenic resources are as important as anything else,” he said. “That opened a lot of aesthetic regulations for local governments.”
Campbell-Blair said this gives the county some ability to say where within a block, distance from corners, the noise they can emit, blend in and colors.
“This gives us a foothold of control that can be expanded later as the law develops and the community reacts, but we’re also a community that needs as much telecommunications equipment as possible, so this is a very, very modest ordinance,” he added.
The wireless communication stations can be placed atop existing lights or on new light poles placed along county right of ways, atop existing utility poles or traffic signals, or on newly created “monopoles” that exist for no other purpose than to have them, Campbell-Blair said.
Board Chair Gerry Hemmingsen asked about these device’s range.
Campbell-Blair said, unlike cell towers, these wireless communication stations have a small range at about 1,000 feet.
“They have to be able to site them pretty close together. There’s only a 50-foot range they can move them around. So, we have a limited ability where we can tell them to put them because overregulation of that can effectively make the network not work then we’ve violated federal law,” Campbell-Blair said. “This company has offered to build street lights and put them on there. The issue then is do we want street lights where it’s dark? It’s like light pollution. Some people like their dark, rural streets. It’s at our discretion. The optimal option would be to put them on existing poles. But we don’t own those. Pacific Power does.”
Hemmingsen noted constituents in his district have requested light poles and recommended working with them to determine the best locations.
Campbell-Blair said the company recommended installing lights in the Bertsch Tract and on Northcrest Drive near Madison Avenue north of Crescent City limits. He added staff is working on a uniform idea to prevent a haphazard arrangement of different looking street lights monopoles in strange places.
District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard said his concern, going back to when he served on the Planning Commission, is a similar debate on cell tower aesthetics and placement. He was worried the county’s ordinance did not cover specifically creating that more appealing look and require blending in with Del Norte County’s unique environment.
“I’m not seeing other than at staff discretion this ordinance discussing the discretionary look. Could we address that within this ordinance?” Howard asked.
Campbell-Blair said the proposed ordinance sets some standards, but is still fairly broad and would be easier to install case-by-case by staff discretion than with a blanket rule.
Howard strongly recommended that staff clearly outline the board’s wishes to address having the aesthetic nature of communication devices hidden to the best of its ability.
“We’ve far too long bypassed this type of look for our cell towers in this community, I’d like to see that addressed in some way, shape or form,” he said.