Friday, May 15, 2015

Quirk's cell tower bill, backed by wireless industry, passes Assembly committee

Assemblymember Bill Quirk presenting his bill
Wednesday to the Assembly Local Government
Committee in Sacramento.
ASSEMBLY | 20TH DISTRICT | Legislation offered by Hayward Assemblymember Bill Quirk and sponsored by a host of powerful wireless telecommunication companies, will take away local control of often-contentious applications for cell phone towers, opponents of the bill told members of the Assembly Local Government Committee on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, the bill was passed by the committee, 6-0.

The impetus behind the legislation, said Quirk and two representatives from wireless companies, is local cities and counties too often drag their feet in giving a thumbs up or down over applications for proposed cell towers and other communication-related equipment.

“Such a delay has implications for public safety, with 911 calls now coming predominately from cellphones, economic growth and the ability for many individuals to access the Internet,” Quirk told the committee.

Quirk’s bill allow cell tower applications to be “deemed approved” if municipalities fail to act within 90 days for a wireless facility, including antennae, and 150 days for a cell tower, utility poles, transmitter and emergency power systems.

In an Assembly analysis, Quirk argues the bill does not usurp local authority since requirements such as an Environmental Impact Report and environmental quality concerns still must be met by the applicant. "Nothing in AB 57 limits or affects the authority of a local jurisdiction over siting decisions, as they still retain all existing rights to deny applications that do not meet the jurisdiction's lawful sitting requirements," said Quirk. "AB 57 simply provides a workable remedy for a local jurisdiction's failure to abide by existing federal deadlines."

Rudy Reyes, vice president of government affairs for Verizon California, also a sponsor of the bill, testified Wednesday that local governments, under federal guidelines, “are not allowed to simply ignore the shot clock without a specific reason. The bottom line issue here is of timeliness. We need our local partners to make decisions in a timely manner. If the decision is yes, then great. If the answer is no, we need to know that too so we can address the concerns as quickly as possible and get to yes.”

Furthermore, the only recourse telecoms have against municipalities failing to make a determination is to file a lawsuit, said Reyes, a avenue wireless companies would rather avoid.

Critics say the existing Federal Communication Commission guidelines are sufficient and the pending legislation unduly extends the rules for the state. San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu registered the only dissent to the bill, saying it does not codify state law with federal guidelines, but extends it. Chiu, however, did not register a vote during the committee hearing.

Kiana Buss, a legislative representative for the California State Association of Counties, said, “There are very important reasons why local government must retain adequate time and authority to review applications and work collaboratively with wireless carriers." No specific cases of local municipalities failing to make determinations over application have been given by supporters of the bill, said Buss.

Omar Masry, wireless planner for the city and county of San Francisco, testified the bill is problematic for cities, such as San Francisco, which have stringent historical preservation guidelines. The FCC’s deemed approval mandate noted by proponents only refer to a small subset of applications, such as adding 10 feet to an existing light pole, he said, not to all new projects.

“It would exceed federal mandates, place new burdens on local governments and severely limits a local jurisdictions ability to regulate aesthetics,” said Masry. "Instead," he added, "the bill may have the unintended effect of forcing local governments to deny permits for incomplete applications instead of continuing to work with the applicant for a solution."

The prominence of the wireless telecom lobby in the state, meanwhile, is unquestioned in Sacramento and since Quirk was elected to the Assembly in 2012 following two terms as a Hayward city council member, he has received over $12,000 in campaign contributions from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and Tracfone Wireless. The amount, however, is small as compared to some of Quirk's largest donors, notably labor unions. But, Quirk's largest single campaign donor has a distinct interest in his own well-being. It is himself.


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