The Oregonian graciously published my OpEd on siting of wireless facilities in the right-of-way, on 6/30/10. I knew when I submitted it that the editors would add their own title, and likely omit parts since I sent in 624 words when the suggested limit is 500. The following is the uncut version I sent, with the deletions highlighted in bold, and additions underlined, so you know my version of what is important in this matter. In particular, I am concerned that the article was changed to suggest I am in charge of all permits for cellular facilities. In fact, the Bureau of Development Services regulates facilities on private lots, and the Bureau of Transportation makes the final permit decisions for antenna sites in the right-of-way.
Over 60% of 9-1-1 calls in Portland come from cell phones. Cell phones and wireless Internet access are increasingly essential services. “Service” requires the physical equipment needed to provide coverage - formerly cell towers, now antennas on existing structures.
While many Portlanders want reliable wireless services, few welcome a cellular transmission antenna near their home. Concerns include potential health impacts, aesthetic issues, and property values. Yet existing poles are reaching capacity, and new companies want to serve Portlanders.
The Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management, one of several City bureaus managing wireless facility permitting, reviews applications within public streets. As the Commissioner in charge of Cable, I must balance the desired growth in cellular services with the livability of our neighborhoods, while also complying with applicable laws.
Some citizens ask the City to deny all new antenna applications. The federal government does not allow local jurisdictions to “prohibit or effectively prohibit” the ability of any entity to provide telecommunications service. Federal law promotes wireless proliferation, severely restricting local authority.
Cities may not consider health concerns, by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling. Last year at my request, the Portland City Council passed a first-in-the-nation Resolution asking the FCC to require review of the scientific studies on potential health impacts, by the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. I want independent experts to address whether there are health impacts that should be considered. Congress has not yet pressed the FCC to conduct this review. Portlanders concerned about wireless health impacts should contact our federal legislators, urging their assistance.
Citizens allege the City’s primary interest is the fees collected. Franchise and pole fees do generate millions of dollars, vital for General Fund basic services including police, fire, housing and parks. The public should benefit from private uses of our streets, and the City is paid regardless of antenna location. Some have claimed the City is “giving $13 million in tax breaks” to wireless companies, because land line usage is taxed, cellular lines are not. While tax equity for land and cellular phones is an important issue, cell phone bills are already high, so adding taxes would not likely reduce demand.
Previously, permits for antennas on utility poles were approved without neighborhood notice or input. The Zoning Code applies only to lots, not public streets. Applying Zoning Code reviews to all streets would require resolution of multiple legal issues after an extensive citywide public process. We do not have the capacity to engage in these discussions during the recession, with so many other urgent challenges.
Instead, early in my Council term I worked with citizens who opposed a highly-controversial 2008 proposal, other neighbors, the City Attorney's office, staff in Cable and Development Services, and industry representatives. We agreed on a new process that encourages neighbors’ comments on applications in residential streets, and permits antennas in neighborhoods only if absolutely necessary. It allows taller structures so there can be fewer facilities, includes significant incentives to avoid neighborhood streets, and sets design standards to minimize impacts.
Given legal constraints and the desire of many Portlanders for good wireless service, I believe these rules strike the right balance for regulating cellular facilities in the right-of-way. No cell “towers” have been built in residential areas since 2004. Of the 80 antennas on utility poles, approximately 20 are on small neighborhood streets. Citizens’ participation now informs the permitting process, resulting in constructive changes.
It is not prudent to expose Portland’s taxpayers to the monetary liability associated with lawsuits if we effectively prohibit cellular companies from providing service. To increase local control, we must change the federal mandates. I encourage concerned citizens to urge Congress to address these issues promptly.