With regular advances in wireless technology, cities all over America are trying to come to terms with how their municipal codes can keep track with the demand for new infrastructure.
As the City of Sammamish is finding out, often there are few precedents for controlling the construction of such infrastructure, making its regulation difficult, and often reactive.
The city’s planning commission is continuing the process of making amendments to its Wireless Communication Facilities (WCF) ordinance.
The catalyst for the amendment was an incident in the Trossachs development about three years ago, which raised the ire of residents.
The creation of a wireless communication hot spot requires the elevation of a transmission box, high enough to allow radiowaves to travel unobstructed into each home. Other homes, hills and mountains, or other structures will block the signal and disrupt wireless service.
When wireless provider Clearwire removed a street lamp and erected a much larger monopole from which to transmit the wireless signal, residents complained that the new structure looked too different from that which it replaced, alleging it was not aesthetically consistent with the development and was, generally, an eyesore.
“It sticks out a lot more than the other decorative light fixtures,” said City of Sammamish Senior Planner Emily Arteche.
Typically, WCF’s in Sammamish are mounted on Puget Sound Energy poles, Bonneville Power Administration towers and light standards.
Arteche said that in this particular Trossachs development, however, most of those services had been installed underground.
“In many ways, Clearwire didn’t have a lot of choice,” she said.
The Trossachs residents were not the first to complain about wireless towers. In the past residents have complained that wireless towers were blocking views of Lake Sammamish. A few have raised concerns about the health impacts of radio waves near residences.
In an effort to draft a wireless facilities ordinance to deal with aesthetic issues, city planners have been studying the policies of councils on Mercer Island and in Santa Cruz, Calif.
On Mercer Island, placement of WCF is regulated through zoning, and the use of a design review board, and WCF are largely prohibited from residential zoned property.
City staff also have the discretion to send an application to a design review commission.
Compatible or neutral colors are required, and if aesthetic impacts cannot be satisfactorily mitigated, screening is required.
In Santa Cruz, the city code encourages the use of antennas mounted on existing facades. The antennas must be integrated with the architectural style of the structure and may not be seen from public view.
According to a memo from planning staff to the commission, staff believe “while a visual impact analysis could help during the WCF review process, it is not guaranteed to result in neighborhood acceptance since aesthetics is inherently subjective.”
It will now be the job of Planning staff to create a set of clear guidelines that wireless providers must follow so that future WCFs will not offend the aesthetic sensibilities of residents.
Arteche said they were looking at removing the light fixture option from the list of structures which could be used to conceal transmitters, in order to avoid repeat of the Trossachs incident.
So what would be the options for wireless providers in neighborhoods like the Trossachs, were there are no suitable structures?
“Well, the providers will have to get creative at that point,” Arteche said. She has been meeting with a group of wireless providers in recent weeks to hear their ideas.
City of Sammamish staff are also amending the WCF ordinance in order to allow for the temporary installation of wireless transmitters during emergencies, utilizing structures such as high voltage electrical transmission towers.
Responding to questions from residents state-wide regarding the health effects of exposure to radiofrequency radiation emitted from wireless facilities, the Washington State Department of Health said that there was “no conclusive evidence to suggest that exposure to RF radiation at
levels produced by wireless communication facilities poses a risk to human health.”