The controversial cellular antenna project being fought by Montecito residents inched closer to reality on Tuesday, as the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors moved toward undergrounding as much of the NextG project as possible. This decision came in two forms: one, it allowed the San Jose-based company to start a trenching program to put the rest of the network’s fiber-optic system underground, including work in the coastal zone; and two, it set a September 21 hearing date to consider a program to “vault” the white hardware boxes that currently are hanging next to antennas throughout the rural foothill community.
In both regards, the supervisors found themselves in handcuffs. Although the overriding concern driving the neighborhood opposition is possible health effects of the cellular devices, federal law preempts local jurisdictions from denying telecommunications infrastructure due to safety fears. As such, the supervisors had previously directed staff to deliver the findings needed to deny the projects based on aesthetic concerns, and staff complied, arguing that the project would be better if the white boxes were put in underground “vaults.” On Tuesday, NextG quickly offered to comply with the vaulting idea and also, in a stroke of strategic goodwill, reduced the number of antennas in Montecito from 10 to 8. The vaulting program is what will be considered again on September 21.
As to the trenching — which was argued against by both neighbors as well as a Native American representative, who claimed the work may disrupt Chumash sites — the supervisors found themselves stuck again. Had they denied the project, NextG had the right to install the equipment on the power lines, and would have likely done so, citing a need to move forward with the project. Plus, given the desire to see the rest of the project undergrounded — save for the antennas, of course, which must remain on the power lines — the supervisors were philosophically tied to allowing an underground program to proceed. They voted unanimously to do so. The City of Santa Barbara also required NextG to vault many of the nodes within its borders.
“NextG is appreciative that the county recognized our need tonight to provide service to the rest of the county by approving the trenching permit,” said NextG representative Patrick Ryan on Tuesday night after the meeting, noting that the Montecito antennas are the last of 142 nodes — and the associated 104 miles of fiber optic “backbone” — to be installed throughout the South Coast. “We are also encouraged about the opportunity to propose modifications on September 21, as recommended by the county staff, and hope to obtain the board’s approval that day for the eight remaining nodes in the county. We are confident that we will be able to address the board’s aesthetic concerns.”
Montecito residents, however, weren’t so enthusiastic. After noting the old adage about the camel’s nose leading its way into the tent, Peter van Duinwyk of the Montecito Association opined, “The methodology used by NextG in this case seems a little bit underhanded and not the kind of pressure that is very pretty to witness in public.”