Last week’s hearing at the San Francisco Board of Appeals was reminiscent of the mythical battle between David and Goliath. Residents who live at the corner of Belvedere and Grattan streets in Cole Valley presented evidence and arguments to the Board in hopes members would overturn The City’s approval of a Verizon wireless antenna outside their homes.
Instead, they’ll have to wait a month before knowing whether they toppled the telecom giant. The City asked for more time to review information again.
“I was disappointed that the Planning Department requested a continuance,” Eliza Nemser, who lives on the block with her family, told me. “It’s concerning that it had to recheck the facts.
One has to wonder if the Department of Public Works is experiencing undue pressure to approve these wireless facilities that compromise the character of our communities and may pose a public health risk.”
As of 2018, San Francisco had received over 1,200 applications for permits and denied only eight. There could be multiple reasons for the high approval rates.
One is likely a belief among officials that The City lacks authority to control deployment of wireless equipment. Federal law forbids local review beyond determining that the Federal Communications Commission public safety guidelines from 1996 have been met. Although these guidelines predate development of 4G technology and fail to protect people, plants and pets from radio frequency radiation from wireless facilities, City officials comply with the FCC’s order anyway.
But The City’s low number of denials may also indicate that it’s failing to address the impacts it can reduce. A recent decision by the California Supreme Court granted officials authority to deny permits for new wireless facilities based on their aesthetic impacts. If The City isn’t properly reviewing these impacts, as the Planning Department alluded during the hearing last week, San Francisco could be stuck with inappropriate and dangerous wireless facilities for decades.
The proposed antenna on Belvedere and Grattan streets was initially denied by the Planning Department because it was “not appropriately sited.” Specifically, The City found that the facility would be too tall, increase the distracting and cluttering aspects of the existing utility pole, and detract from the defining characteristics of the neighborhood.
Then, without explanation, the Department approved the same permit it denied.
“If it’s 40 feet and disapproved and 40 feet and approved there’s kind of an issue there, isn’t there?” Commissioner Darryl Honda asked a representative from the Planning Department at the hearing last week.
Board president Rick Swig later stated, “I have nightmares about this stuff, believe it or not, because I care so much. I wonder whether there is a tendency to rubberstamp.”
The Board of Appeals seemed to recognize the antenna would detract from the surrounding area in violation of City law. But Commissioners ultimately voted to delay their decision to give the Planning Department time to recheck the application. The move was frustrating to say the least.
Since the 1980s, residents in the area have worked to beautify the neighborhood by undergrounding utility wires and funding the installation of specialty street lights. While The City has discretion to protect these beautification efforts, it failed to properly review the wireless facility’s aesthetic impacts and rubberstamped a permit it had previously denied. If neighborhood residents weren’t so vigilant, there would now be a huge wireless antenna towering over the buildings and trees on Grattan Street.
This lack of proper review doesn’t only effect the beauty of The City though. San Francisco recognizes the potential impacts associated with radiofrequency radiation and has attempted to regulate in the past. But by approving improper permits, The City is also exposing people and the environment to potentially significant health and safety risks.
Wireless companies are incredibly powerful. It’s difficult for residents, like Nemser and her neighbors, to fight them and their team of lawyers. Residents shouldn’t also have to fight The City. Instead of handing Goliath a shield in the form of a rubberstamped approval, officials should properly review and deny permits that fail to protect San Francisco and San Franciscans.
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Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com