Cell Tower Siting Controversies in Los Angeles: Interview with Paul Krekorian, LA Council District 2

This article originally appeared at Sunroomdesk.com

Posted By: Editor Utility Technologies

Sherman Oaks residents angry about an Albers St. T-Mobile cell tower and Sunland-Tujunga residents concerned about proposed sites in their neighborhood have each contacted Los Angeles Council District 2 representative Paul Krekorian with petitions. The Albers St. Get the Cell Out group has complained of getting “no support” from Krekorian’s office to prevent or remove the installation. I interviewed Paul Krekorian at LA City Hall on Thursday on the Sherman Oaks controversy, the rules governing cell site installations from the municipal to the federal level, and the status of the October 2009 motion calling on the LA city attorney to review options for better regulating installations of cell sites in Los Angeles. Transcript of the interview below:
Q: Did your office know about the Albers St. T-Mobile tower before it was installed?
A: The short answer is no. We do get pro forma notification of these, but we get a lot of those at this office. The vast majority of these are non-controversial issues, and we are dependent on hearing from our constituents about those that cause concern, because it is impractical to make that judgment with the volume of boilerplate notifications that we get, not just on antennas but on other things as well. What that has made clear to me is that we need to have a better system of insuring that members of the community have broader notification so that they can address concerns to this office and other council offices. I think we need to look very closely at a broader notification requirement that will avoid that exact problem. In the Albers St. case, T-Mobile sent about 6-8 notices, including us and the neighborhood council. That’s just not enough to provide opportunity for representatives to hear about issues. Even though the city’s range of options in this case is quite limited, I want to know as the elected representative when constituents feel they are being adversely impacted. The only way we can do that is by having a broader notification requirement.

Q: Have you been in contact recently with the Albers St. community?
A: My office all works collaboratively as a team on constituent services. We as a team have been engaged in this issue extensively from the moment we became aware of this project and the complaints – we’ve attended community meetings, [Planning Director] Daniel Brumer has stood up on behalf of the neighborhood and discussed what the range of options are, we have extensively researched the facts and the law that are applicable in this case. And we’ve learned, frankly, a lot from this case, about the limited range of options that are available to the city under current law. Our work has informed us about ways that we can make options better. And we are going to be pursuing many of those policy options. As far as contact with folks in this neighborhood, just last night I was chatting with a few of the people from that community who came to my Holiday Open House. We had a good positive conversation, a group of them are going to be meeting with me to discuss what we have done and what we plan to do. In other areas of the district, similarly, we’ve been very engaged in trying to give voice to the people. A great example is Sunland-Tujunga, where a similar T-Mobile installation is deemed controversial. When we became aware of it, we talked with T-Mobile and gained a commitment from them to work with the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council in identifying areas of the community where it would be acceptable to have installations. There is a subcommittee now formed within the Land Use Committee that will go around the neighborhood with T-Mobile to find sites that meet T-Mobile’s system needs and meet the needs of neighbors in the area. That’s the kind of cooperation that I would like to see telecom companies have with local communities, because that’s the real answer for getting a balanced solution. It is inadequate for neighborhoods to say, “No cell antennas,” because as long as we continue to use cell phones we’re going to need those antennas someplace in order to have service, but that doesn’t mean that they should be on every street corner, obviously. So you strike that balance by having the telecom companies actually go out and engage neighborhoods through their elected representatives, through their neighborhood councils, through our offices to try to find the solutions that will work for the system and still not be unduly intrusive in communities. Q: Los Angeles City Council opened a file on this subject back in October 2009 with a motion by Bill Rosendahl. Since that time more than 45 neighborhood councils have submitted resolutions supporting the motion, calling for a moratorium, and urging the city council to draft new rules. Why has more than a year gone by with nothing done? A: This is frustrating for me as a new council member. This was a process that started before my election. I can’t say why its been over a year since that motion has been introduced and we still don’t have the report back from the city attorney, but I am raising that issue with the city attorney and I hope that we will have a response to that request as quickly as humanly possible, so that number 1, we have a clear and thorough legal analysis of what it is really possible for us to do; and number 2, so we can use that framework as an opportunity to develop new policy for a better process.
Q: Do you support the idea of a moratorium while new rules are crafted? As an example, Glendale instituted a moratorium which lasted for a year and a half on cell site installations in residential areas only, while crafting new municipal rules for installations.
A: The concern I have about a moratorium is the potential risk of significant liability to the city if rights that exist now under current law are delayed. One of the things I’d like to know from the city attorney’s office is whether a moratorium would run us afoul of the federal law that requires permit approval within 90 days or 150 days, depending on the type of installation. I’d like to ask that of the city attorney and get a response to it, because sometimes it does take a very long time to get policy changes done here and I think if we were to impose a moratorium it could raise those sorts of issues.
Q: Do you see a possibility for having an ordinance like Glendale does or like San Francisco is now considering which would restrict installations along the public right-of-way?
A: I know something about the Glendale ordinance. I haven’t seen the San Francisco ordinance yet. If they have found ways to do things that are legally defensible and that better serves their constituents, I certainly want to look at those options and I want our city attorney to look at them as well. The Glendale approach of shifting burden of proof to the carrier to show a need to build an installation in a residential area for system purposes — I think there’s some merit in that, because it doesn’t make sense to unduly fill neighborhoods with antennas that they can’t demonstrate to be necessary for their system. Again, its a matter of balance, we all want to have instant wireless access, and we get frustrated when we don’t have it. At the same time nobody wants to have these installations next door to them, so to find that balance we need to ask the carriers, “Why do you need it there?” If they need coverage, that’s a different situation than if it would be convenient for the company to put an installation there rather than some other place.
Q: Is there any ongoing contact between the major wireless carriers and the Los Angeles City Council about their plans for 4G coverage and their build-out to accommodate it?
A: In the broadest sense, only that there is in fact a build-out of the network going on. But they certainly don’t share with us their plans, or the locations we have in mind. They decidedly do not share that information with us, nor do I think there’s any legal way we can compel them to do so. We don’t have any kind of advance notice information about when they will be rolling into this neighborhood or that neighborhood.
Q: That brings up the problem of competition that these companies engage in: if T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, Clearwire, and others all decide to compete in the same neighborhood for business, that could mean a great deal of installations along the public right-of-way. In that situation, who is protecting the residents?
A: Part of the problem we have on Albers St. (in Sherman Oaks) is that it is an existing pole installation, which is being replaced by the new pole. That makes it subject to the Joint Pole Authority. The idea behind that, 100 years ago, was this: we don’t want our neighborhood littered with a bunch of competing poles, so we have one set of poles and anybody who wants to use those poles for whatever appliance has the ability to do that, specifically so that neighborhoods aren’t filled with a bunch of poles serving a bunch of different purposes. You’re right, you have competitors who are trying to broaden their coverage, and are trying to provide the fastest, best, broadest coverage possible. There is some risk of over-saturation. On the flip side, they don’t build these things just because they want to stake out a neighborhood, they build them to meet demand, and as long as there are consumers who demand this kind of coverage, that’s the reason we are getting this kind of build-out. They are investing a lot of money because they are meeting the demands of consumers. That’s why its a challenge for us to find the right policy now.
Q: Do you think current federal and state laws are fair to both residents and industry, and municipalities?
A: I’m a local elected official. I would like to have a greater degree of local control over what happens. That’s a given. I think I have a better feel for what my constituents want in their neighborhoods than a state or federal legislator would, so I would like to have more latitude to represent my constituents, and I’d like local government to have more authority in this area. At the same time, I understand policymakers want a national communications system that works. As the elected representative of a community, I’d like to have more ability to regulate these installations than I do now, and right now it is extremely and frustratingly limited.
Q: Do you agree with members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who have stated that municipalities have to lead in addressing this issue because telecoms have too much power at the state and federal level?
A: The jurisdictional model we are operating with preempts us from regulating in wide areas of this issue. I’m interested in trying to find practical ways to help my constituents: improving municipal law to the greatest extent that we can, providing as much notice to people as we can, working in partnership where possible and as an advocate where its not possible. How I lead is by making sure I advocate within a balance of legal jurisdiction as a city council member for the people that I represent, and then pushing our state and federal government to strike that balance we’ve talked about and allow concerns and legitimate interests of people in neighborhoods to be considered as part of the equation.
Q: Getting T-Mobile and the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council Land Use Committee together to identify appropriate sites is an unusual approach. Of the communities I’m aware of that have dealt with this issue, usually the two parties don’t end up working together. How did this come about?
A: We have found that if we have advance notice and opportunity, most of the telecoms we’ve dealt with are willing to try and cooperate with us. Working cooperatively with me means working cooperatively with our neighborhood councils and communities. We’ve had some success in that context, getting them in communication with the neighborhood council. I think this is a great model for how other companies can work collaboratively going forward. We’ve also had some success in other circumstances where we’ve worked with a company to get a proposed installation relocated. Companies prefer to carry out their plans without intrusion by elected officials, but the flip side of that is that they want to make sure that to the extent feasible they have a cooperative relationship with us. And as as I’ve said, to have a cooperative relationship with me means having a cooperative relationship with neighborhood councils. I hope that will be the model until we make better changes. Q: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss about this issue? A: I am reaching out to the city attorney, asking for a comprehensive review of the state of the law right now, to ensure that everything that I understand about the Albers St. situation is correct. I believe it is. Unfortunately, the current state of the law requires very minimal notification on the part of T-Mobile and that’s what has led us to this point. The residents felt like they were taken by surprise. We are frustrated in this office because we have constituents who are angry with T-Mobile and directing some of that anger toward us, even though we essentially had no advance notice and no ability within the bounds of the law to restrict T-Mobile from doing what they did. That’s frustrating for me as an elected representative. I want the city attorney to let me know whether there are any things that we haven’t uncovered on our own, ways that we can in similar situations have a wider latitude. Also, I will be calling on the city attorney to get the report they are working on for the city council expedited. I would like to see that report come back to city council no later than January so that we can start working in the new year on policies that will help address some of these concerns.
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