Nevada City opposes state effort to control cell phone infrastructure |

Nevada City opposes state effort to control cell phone infrastructure

The Small Cell Bill, working its way through the California senate, proposes allowing cell companies to install antennas on streetlights like this one on Broad Street in historic downtown Nevada City. City staff have been successful in getting the bill amended to exempt historic districts.
Elias Funez/ |

Nevada City council members and staff are concerned that a new California senate bill, which proposes allowing cellular companies to install wireless infrastructure without the discretion of local governments, could pose challenges to the city’s historic designation and may cause adverse health effects for residents.

“Every once in a while, a bill comes across my desk and I see an opportunity for Nevada City to help shape it,” said City Manager Mark Prestwich. “And I’m especially sensitive to bills that might impact our historic designation.”

Senate Bill 649, the Small Cells Bill, proposes that California take steps to ensure that its communities “have access to the most advanced wireless communications technologies and the transformative solutions that robust wireless connectivity enables.” California should also, it proposes, “create a statewide framework for the deployment of advanced wireless communications infrastructure.”

Keeping local control

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That framework, laid out by the bill, involves giving rights to cell companies to install “small cells” on locally owned utility poles, streetlights, and other suitable host infrastructure located within the public right-of-way. Local governments would be unable to have a say in installations, and also be unable to profit off of the infrastructure.

“Small cells” are defined as wireless telecommunications facilities with antennas totaling no more than 6 cubic feet in volume, and the associated equipment on pole structures not exceeding 21 cubic feet. Cell companies introducing 5G technology plan to use these new small cells, which require more numerous installations.

When Prestwich first read the Small Cells Bill, he saw it as a huge roadblock for Nevada City maintaining its historic aesthetic, and said he jumped at the chance to make a difference. He teamed up with City Planner Amy Wolfson, who drafted a letter to Senator Ben Hueso, the author of the bill, declaring Nevada City’s opposition and requesting an amendment to exempt historic districts from giving up the ability to oppose wireless infrastructure.

Nevada City council members unanimously approved Wolfson’s letter.

Vice Mayor Duane Strawser and council member Reinette Senum joined Prestwich and Wolfson in attending multiple senate hearings on the bill in Sacramento to voice their opposition in person.

“This would open a whole Pandora’s Box,” said Senum. “Once the telecommunications industry can do whatever they please, you’re going to have other industries lining up trying to do the same.”

Senum and Strawser were not only concerned with the impact the bill would have on Nevada City’s aesthetics, and the ramifications of rolling back local government authority, but the health impacts of cell phone use too.

“What we found was that at the state level they won’t listen to arguments about the adverse health effects of this infrastructure,” said Strawser. “If you bring up the health ramifications they will shut you down. So while we were down in Sacramento we decided only to bring up the concerns about our historic district.”

On Tuesday, the bill was updated to include an exemption for historic districts. Prestwich said that was a direct result of Nevada City’s activism. They were the only city with elected officials testifying at the first senate committee meeting.

“That doesn’t mean they can’t strike that language at any point during the process of this bill,” Prestwich said. “We’re going to keep following it until the end.”

A recent effort by Verizon Wireless to install a cell antenna on a historic building in downtown Nevada City was stopped by city council, who have recommended that Verizon search for alternate sites.

“If this bill had been passed two years ago, there’d be an antenna on top of that building right now,” said Strawser.

Health effects

On March 2, the California Department of Public Health released a document containing guidelines informing the public about adverse health risks of prolonged cell phone use. The document, which was stamped “draft and not for public release,” has been concealed by the state since it was written in April 2014.

The document was released only after a Sacramento Superior Court Judge ordered its disclosure, and the San Francisco Chronicle published a news story about the state concealing it for so many years.

The document states that health officials are concerned about possible health effects from cell phone use, because recent studies suggest that long-term use may increase the risk of brain cancer and other health problems. It also suggests that in order to decrease health risks associated with cell phones, individuals should hold cell phones at a distance during calls and use speakerphone or headsets, keep calls short, carry phones away from the body, and limit use when reception is weak.

The document also cautions that children are more susceptible to the negative impacts of cell phone use, and parents should limit their child’s use to “texting, important calls, and emergencies.”

“This demonstrates something that we have seen a pattern of over the decades,” said Senum. “It’s an industry suppressing important information and lying to the public about risks to their health and well being for that industry’s bottom line.”

She said cell companies are notoriously known as lobbyists to politicians.

“We have lives at stake, and the state wouldn’t release that document for public eye,” she said. “Are you kidding me?”

Senum said she owned the first wireless phone store in Nevada County, Empire Cellular, in 1990.

“I was a huge advocate for the deployment of cellular technology back then,” she said. “But over the years I’ve learned that ‘smart’ is not smart any longer.”

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email, or call 530-477-4231.

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