Peninsula cities, telecoms at odds over new antennas on public land

Forget iPhone versus Android — the telecommunications battle to watch is city councils versus cellphone towers.

One battlefield is Burlingame, where city officials are fighting off a lawsuit that would force the town to immediately accept new antennas on public property.

Burlingame is in good company: Daly City recently capitulated to Verizon following lawsuit threats over a tower that residents opposed. San Mateo County is embroiled in a suit brought by Sprint after supervisors declined to renew an existing tower there. And T-Mobile only withdrew a San Bruno tower proposal after more than 300 people signed a petition opposing it. The controversy also has graced San Carlos, Palo Alto and San Francisco.

Foes often worry that cellphone radiation could harm their health. Other critics dislike tower aesthetics or locations. Still others worry that their town will have to foot the bill if the technology becomes outmoded and must be replaced.

But cellphone companies point to studies dismissing health concerns, and explain they are simply trying to meet demands for service — often from the very communities that oppose the towers.

“It used to be that people were happy just talking on the phone, but now people want data, they’re downloading pictures, sending documents,” said T-Mobile spokesman Rod De La Rosa. “There’s just an unprecedented amount of demand.”

When this argument fails to win over city councils, the companies usually have the law on their side: A 1996 federal regulation prohibits local governments from vetoing new cellphone towers based on health concerns. This rule often leaves local governments hamstrung: Their residents may not want the new towers, but if the city caters to those concerns, it leaves itself open to lawsuits.

Sometimes just the threat of a lawsuit is enough to make a local government back down. That happened in Daly City, where Verizon threatened to sue when the City Council denied the company a permit to expand an already-existing tower.

“It would have probably cost us $500,000 to fight it, and we’d have probably lost anyway,” said City Councilman David Canepa. “That’s a big chunk of our reserves. Who in this day and age wants to put their city through that?”

Burlingame found itself in court even without denying any towers. After two companies requested permission to construct antennas on power poles in the public right-of-way, City Attorney Gus Guinan said, the City Council created a process that would notify residents and let them voice their opinion about new proposed antennas. In August, the council imposed a temporary tower moratorium while working out the details of the policy.

That didn’t please one of the applicants, cellphone infrastructure provider ExteNet. It sued Burlingame, asking Superior Court Judge George Miram to immediately lift the moratorium. Miram denied that request. City leaders hope to resolve the issue in January, before it is due back in court.

The irony is that once the moratorium is lifted, it’s unlikely the city will have any power to deny requests for new cellphone towers, Burlingame City Manager Jim Nantel said.

“As we listen to people in our neighborhoods, they’re very concerned about these being close to their homes,” Nantel said. “But the federal law just doesn’t allow us to disallow them.”

Cellphone use gains in popularity

Wireless subscriber connections
June 2011: 322.9 million

Use of minutes each year
June 2011: 2.25 trillion
June 2006: 1.68 trillion

Text messages sent each month

June 2011: 196.9 billion
June 2006: 12.5 billion

Percentage of households that are cellphone only
June 2011: 29.7
June 2006: 10.5


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