Council OKs interim small cell wireless ordinance, extends crumb rubber ban

The Edmonds City Council tackled an issue Tuesday night that many cities in the U.S. has been wrestling with in recent months: How to comply with last fall’s Federal Communications Commission ruling that limits how state and local governments regulate small cell wireless facilities.

City staff and City Attorney Jeff Taraday presented the council with an interim ordinance aimed at addressing some pressing concerns — such as accommodating any wireless company applications that might come in for the facilities — prior to the FCC’s April 14 deadline to have final rules in place.

The council ended up approving that ordinance by a 3-2 vote (Councilmembers Tom Mesaros and Kristiana Johnson were absent) but not before an extensive discussion among councilmembers about what the city could — and couldn’t — regulate.

Under the FCC ruling, the city’s main focus is aesthetics — what the facilities will look like and where they are placed. The FCC order specifies that aesthetic requirements must be reasonable, objective and “no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure deployments.” One of the challenges facing city staff in developing regulations, Taraday said, is that no one is certain exactly how many facilities will be installed citywide. Assuming that the city has franchises with up to five wireless carriers, it could be a thousand or more.

Graphic courtesy City of Edmonds

Small cells don’t require as much power as full-sized towers, and perform best when clustered together to create more of a mesh network than a point-to-point signal. This requires a lot of hardware and it all has to be attached somewhere.

Prior to the public hearing on the issue, city staff went through a presentation outlining the recommended placement of these small cells, which — as we reported in our earlier story — will provide the new, faster 5G technology for wireless customers.

The presentation showed a range of alternatives for installing small cell facilities on public property as well as other property located inside and outside the public rights-of-way in Edmonds. Staff’s top preference is for locations on private property, outside the city’s right-of-way, and preferably on an existing building or freestanding small cell pole.

A utility worker installs a typical small cell wireless station in Sacramento, Calif. (Photo courtesy Verizon)

Following the presentation, Councilmember Neil Tibbott listed several concerns he had about the small cell installations, including his hope that obsolete equipment would be removed from existing poles before any new equipment was installed, to reduce clutter. In addition, Tibbott said it would be unacceptable for the city to allow downtown installation of decorative street lighting that accommodates small cell equipment, unless it exactly matched the design of the city’s existing historic Sternberg model light poles.

Councilmember Mike Nelson wryly noted “there is nothing small about 1,000 cell towers in our city,” then went on to ask whether there was a maximum distance that could be required between the facilities “to limit how many we have.”

Taraday replied that the small cell facilities have a small range and as a result many more are needed. Dispersion of the facilities is likely to be an ongoing discussion both with the council and with wireless industry representatives, he said

“We’re trying to strike the right balance between making it so there isn’t too much impact in one spot and yet we also recognize that we need to be able to provide working technology and the industry needs to be able to deploy in a way that’s functional for industry,” Taraday explained.

“I just want folks to understand this is an FCC regulation that was pretty much written by the wireless communications industry,” Nelson replied, adding that it “severely limits what we can do as a city.”

Councilmember Diane Buckshnis asked if the city could charge wireless companies for any facilities they place in public right of way. Taraday replied that the Washington State Legislature “has made it so that we cannot charge for the use of right of way if the user is a telecommunications company.”

Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas asked if the city had to allow wireless companies to place such facilities in rights of way. “We have to allow them to deploy,” Taraday responded. “The FCC has basically said, ‘Thou shalt allow small cell deployment in your jurisdiction.” That said, the FCC’s guidance isn’t clear on exactly what the cities can and can’t do, meaning there will likely be disagreement between cities and wireless companies on what is allowed.

Fraley-Monillas said that while she understands the public’s desire for better cell phone service, she doesn’t support the idea that wireless companies can install facilities on public rights of way and not have to compensate cities.

The city is set to meet with wireless industry representatives later this week and Taraday expects that industry representatives will request changes to the ordinance before it becomes permanent,  “We certainly are going to be opened minded about what they have to say,” Taraday said, “but looking out for the city’s best interests at the same time.

During the public hearing following council discussion, two wireless industry representatives offered testimony on the interim  ordinance. One of them, Gregg Busch from the Wireless Policy Group and representing AT&T, said that AT&T “has significant concerns with the current draft of the wireless code update.” Of. particular concern is the requirement that carriers negotiate with private property owners for facility installation unless they can justify locating them in the public right of way.

“It’s not in line what other jurisdictions are doing in Washington that I can see, or any of my colleagues can see,” Busch said. In addition, the city’s proposed regulations would lead to more poles and clutter in the right of way “because you are requiring a new pole to be put up within 5 feet of already existing poles.”

At the end of the hearing and following further council discussion, the council vote was 3-2 to support the interim measure, with Councilmembers Fraley-Monillas and Nelson voting against.

The council also:

– Extended for a fourth time its moratorium — originally passed in 2015 — to ban crumb rubber infill on publicly-owned playfields located in the city. The moratorium, which now runs until Aug. 21, was originally passed to allow for the completion of federal and California studies on possible environmental and health impacts of  crumb rubber. Read more about that here.

-Held a public hearing on a proposal to amend minimum residential parking standard codes for buildings of 4,800 square feet or less located in BD-zoned properties downtown. These small-footprint buildings have previously not had any parking required. The amendments were drafted after the city discovered that a nine-unit apartment complex was being built on Edmonds Street without any on-site vehicle parking.

– Discussed the Shoreline Master Program periodic review. A public hearing on the topic will be scheduled for a future meeting.

– Approved an ordinance vacating a portion of Excelsior Place Street.

– Approved a public utility easement for the Edmonds Recovery Center property at 7416 212th St. S.W.

— By Teresa Wippel


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