They look bad, they’ll lower property values, and they’ll preclude any future attempts to put utility poles underground. That was the public chorus on Tuesday afternoon about a network of wireless antennas proposed for Montecito, where seven individual sites — which were denied by the wealthy community’s planning commission — were being reviewed by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. After two hours of testimony from staff, the public, and the applicant NextG’s vice president Patrick Ryan (whose company has already installed dozens of these devices in the cities of Goleta, Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, and elsewhere in the county), the supervisors told staff to conduct additional analysis that will likely enable the board to deny the antennas at a later date.
NextG’s wireless network — which is carrying the signal for relatively new cellular provider MetroPCS — started Montecito buzzing last fall, when a proposed site next to Montecito Union School got parents worried about whether their children’s health would be affected by the resulting radiation; those health concerns also spilled into other parts of the community, causing the board last year to discuss a possible moratorium (which did not fly) and update to the county’s telecommunications ordinance (minor tweaks are underway). But federal law prohibits denial of such antennas due to health concerns, so Tuesday’s focus on aesthetics was a conscious shift by the anti-NextG crowd, which includes the Montecito Association and is being represented by Susan Basham of Price, Postel, & Parma.
“You can’t paint out of existence something that’s obnoxious to start with,” argued Basham, discounting different color schemes and other possible ways of making the devices — which include a three-foot-long, six-inch-wide box and a two-foot “whip” antenna — more amenable to Montecito’s “semi-rural” character. “It’s not pretty,” echoed resident Abe Powell, who also detailed the 15 percent drop in home value that one realtor suggested would come with a cell site outside. “Who is going to repay the owners after the county lets NextG reduce their property values?” he asked, later summing up, “The choice is simple for the board at this time: You can either side with an outside corporation in their interest of making a buck off of our community, or you can side with your community and their interests.” Many of the nearly two dozen public speakers also expressed concern that the NextG devices would hamper efforts to move power poles underground, which is a stated preference of the community, and that these initial antennas were just the “proverbial foot in the door” with more than 50 similar sites being put up in Montecito in the future.
In both his presentation and subsequent questioning, NextG’s Patrick Ryan, however, denied that these sites were Trojan horses, explaining that future antennas — which he did admit NextG plans to pursue — would endure the same review process. Ryan also listed other high-end communities where these sites have worked well, mentioned recent court cases — including an oft-mentioned one from Long Island — that sided with NextG and against the property value argument, detailed radiation analyses of the sites that did not even register on the usual equipment, and also said that state law mandates NextG to comply with undergrounding of utility poles. Although he said NextG has been in negotiations with the county for 14 months and has followed all of the published rules, Ryan managed to keep his cool throughout the hearing, save for the minor threat that the loops of cable currently blighting the power lines at unapproved antenna sites would remain until these were approved.
After about an hour of discussion from the dais, the supervisors were inclined to deny the antennas, but were guided by county counsel to lay more groundwork to do so, in the likely event that the county is sued by NextG upon denial. When asked, Ryan explained that he would have preferred an up or down vote rather than more analysis. Although federal and state law allows denial based on aesthetics, the denial must be based on “substantial” evidence and must not result in an “effective prohibition,” which is to say that alternate sites must be available. To address those concerns, county planners were asked to determine if denial would result in “significant gaps” in service and if there were any feasible alternative sites.