Supervisors hear 5G concerns

02/14/2019

Residents packed the Board of Supervisors Chamber last Tuesday evening, urging the board to do everything in its power to resist the installation of the small-cell wireless facilities known as 5G. The overwhelming majority expressed concerns over the health impacts of exposing communities to electromagnetic fields and radio-frequency radiation.

Tuesday’s workshop was held in part to discuss what changes the county could make to its telecommunications plan, adopted in 1990 and updated in 1998, to provide a measure of local control over deployment without outright violating an order handed down last fall by the Federal Communications Commission. The rules hamstring local jurisdictions by limiting aesthetic review, prohibiting location restrictions and putting caps on application processing windows and the amount municipalities can charge for permit fees. 

The workshop drew more than 50 comments from the public, largely concentrated in three categories: health, fire safety and property values. Attendees cited a range of studies that outlined health risks from EMFs and radio-frequency radiation, saying they caused everything from miscarriages to cancer. Some spoke to their own health struggles that they believed were caused by proximity to cell phone towers or similar power line clusters. The telecommunications industry was compared to everything from the tobacco industry to the Titanic. 

Many of those assembled asked supervisors to enact a moratorium on 5G construction, but county counsel Brian Case noted that the F.C.C.’s order banned moratoriums. While that order is also currently the subject of litigation, “it’s enacted federal regulation, and local jurisdictions cannot pass express or de facto moratoriums,” Mr. Case said. 

Tom Lai, assistant director for the Community Development Agency, reminded the board—and the audience, which booed loudly—that jurisdictions cannot cite health effects as the sole reason to deny a wireless facility that meets federal standards. 

“Studies show that EMFs may be a carcinogen to human beings, so being careful is good,” Mr. Lai said. “But we need to make sure we’re in the bounds of what is legal under federal law—that’s the challenge we have before us.”

But not all residents were worried about the county staying within legal bounds. “I believe the county should ban all 5G installations and be willing to be sued by the industry, because I believe it will prevail in the court of public opinion and the court of law,” said Frank Leahy of Mill Valley. “If it is unwilling to go that far, then raise the bar on getting a permit.” 

Two telecommunications representatives, one from Verizon and one from AT&T, made a case for the expansion, arguing that in a few years data consumption would increase exponentially, causing a slow-down of texts, data and phone calls. The Verizon representative said 5G would make people safer, speeding up 911 calls; none of the arguments held any water with the packed constituents. 

“I’ve been looking at 5G for a while, and I’m a little skeptical about the industry’s current claims about benefits and their intentions,” said Barry Smith of Point Reyes Station. “It doesn’t seem to me it’s about bringing innovative technology for underserviced populations or preventing collisions on highways. It seems to have to do with Netflix and Amazon Prime. How many of our neighbors are we going to throw under the bus so we can download Game of Thrones Season Eight quicker than we could before?” 

Many people urged the implementation of fiber optic networks, which they said bypassed many of the pitfalls of 5G, though Mr. Lai noted that fiberoptic is typically unable to support cell phone service. 

While Supervisor Katie Rice noted there were indeed people in the community worried about lacking cellular coverage and internet access, she said she primarily wanted to strengthen the county’s ordinance to give municipalities more control. Mr. Lai pointed out that even if the F.C.C. rules were struck down, the county would do well to update its plan. “This is different from 3G or 4G, so it would be helpful for us to come up with standards,” he said. “We do need to amend our requirements because this is different from previous generations.” 

The county’s current telecommunications plan attempts to divert deployment away from residential sites by ranking location preferences for new installations; industrial and commercial sites lead this list, with open space and residential areas ranking last. It also lays out some aesthetic guidelines in an effort to regulate the number, location and design of the facilities by promoting consolidation and unobtrusive design. Some of the plan’s policies—such as denying the construction or expansion of a facility if it creates a significant threat to endangered species—are potentially outdated, as Mr. Case said that industry-friendly rules have enabled the F.C.C. to avoid most environmental reviews.  

Mr. Lai said he was hopeful the county could successfully defend the fee levels it has in place, which are higher than the limits handed down by the F.C.C. But he wanted supervisors to think about the extent to which they wanted to get into aesthetic regulations of the wireless installations, as after mid-April the agency’s restrictions on aesthetic review will be solidified. 

The county must also determine how to navigate changing or creating laws when pending litigation could change the regulatory landscape. No firm next steps were decided; the Community Development Agency is currently “in research mode for development standards that could be ideal for Marin County,” senior planner Immanuel Bereket said. 

“The big picture for me is we need to protect the public to the greatest extend possible,” said Supervisor Damon Connolly, who advocated for the board to evaluate creating minimum distance requirements from residential zones, childcare centers, medical facilities and schools. And, he said, he “would like to see any and all actions necessary for fire reduction.” 

Supervisor Kate Sears said the “internet of things can never surpass in importance the health and wellness of our community,” adding that she had sent a letter to Rep. Jared Huffman on behalf of the board, requesting his leadership in co-sponsoring H.R.530, a bill introduced by Anna Eschoo that seeks to nullify most of the F.C.C. order. 

The county is also battling the F.C.C. in court. Last fall, Marin County joined a lawsuit, Eugene, Ore. vs. U.S., that challenges the legality of the August order. Mr. Case said the briefing would occur this summer and that he expected the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to make a decision in early 2020.