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AT&T Cell Phone Antennas Approved

The Albany Planning & Zoning Commission voted unanimously Thursday night to approve AT&T cell phone antennas on a San Pablo Avenue office building. The company has been seeking approval of the antennas since 2008.

A longstanding effort by AT&T to install its first cell phone antennas in Albany finally won a victory Thursday night when the city's Planning & Zoning Commission voted 4-0 to approve the company's new application for the project.

Following much community debate, the company's first application for antennas on the roof of a three-story office building at 1023 San Pablo Ave. was rejected last year by the commission and later on appeal by the City Council. That proposal, filed in 2008, was rejected in part because it was found to exceed the city's limitation for construction on a rooftop.

AT&T Mobility filed a new application in October that called for demolishing most of an existing penthouse-type structure on the roof, which would keep the project within the 10 percent limit on rooftop additions.

Eight people spoke during the public comments before the commission's vote on the application Thursday night, according to City Planner Anne Hersch. Five, including an AT&T representative, spoke in favor, she said. Another spoke against. One person asked questions about the city's code, Hersch said.

Albany resident Caryl O'Keefe attended the meeting and sent Patch a report about it, which can be found at the bottom of this article.

AT&T sued the city over the denial in federal court in August, alleging that the city improperly applied its regulations and that the decision improperly considered health concerns. The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 forbids denying cell phone antenna because of health concerns. 

The city had asked AT&T if it would agree to a pause in the lawsuit pending the outcome of the new application, and AT&T declined, Hersch said.

AT&T and supporters of the antennas argued that Albany's AT&T service suffers because the company does not have any cellphone antennas in the city. Opponents expressed fears about placing the antennas in an area where many families live and urged that the company pick a different location further away from residents.

Report on the meeting from Caryl O'Keefe:

Albany’s Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) voted unanimously January 17 to approve AT&T’s request PA 12-050, for Conditional Use Permit and Design Review for a wireless facility on the roof of 1035 San Pablo Ave.  One P&Z member recused himself due to proximity of his office and home to the site.

AT&T has no wireless facility in Albany, and first applied for one on this rooftop 4 years ago.  AT&T proposes to install 9 cell antennas, near existing Sprint antennas, to improve AT&T cell phone service in Albany. Staff report: http://www.albanyca.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=22354

In this new application submitted Oct 2012, AT&T addressed “rooftop coverage” and height issues cited as bases for a July 2012 denial of the most previous application.  “Rooftop coverage” refers to how much area of a roof is covered with structures and other features. There’s a 10% limit on anything more than 6 feet tall, in part to prevent an unauthorized additional story.  P&Z determined in discussions of the previous application that the rooftop coverage was at 14.5%, due to pre-existing structures and equipment.   

Total rooftop coverage would now be reduced to 9.95% by two actions proposed by AT&T.  First is demolition of most of a rooftop structure original to the 1984 building.  Second is relocation of some AT&T wireless equipment into a first floor office space.  The latter triggered another provision of Albany’s wireless code – the office space is less than 50 feet from a residential property line – but the code allows a reduction in distance because  there is no visual or noise impact. 

Aesthetics posed a challenge to P&Z commissioners.  Albany code requires wireless facilities to be screened to reduce visual impact. Typically screening is constructed by the applicant, and AT&T proposed a fiberglass panel painted to match the building.  “Photo-sims” illustrated the proposal.  But members of the commission agreed the effect of the proposed south-side fiberglass screening was not appealing - because it did not also screen adjacent Sprint antennas.  When asked if AT&T could extend its screening to Sprint’s antennas too, an AT&T representative replied that it could not do that without Sprint’s request.  Sprint’s antennas are not screened by Sprint because its installation preceded Albany’s wireless code.

P&Z searched the City code for options.  Code provides that screening may be accomplished by “co-location” (more than one wireless provider at a site) or existing vegetation.  Both apply to this site, so P&Z’s motion to approve this application included a condition that the proposed south-side fiberglass screening be eliminated.

City code allows appeal of this approval if filed within 14 days.

Approval of the application might lead to a settlement agreement with AT&T on current litigation related to prior application.  On August 15, 2012 AT&T filed a lawsuit against the City of Albany seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.   

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See past Albany Patch coverage of cell phone antenna issues. 

Allan Maris January 21, 2013 at 12:29 AM
I am eager to see the quality of Patch return to that which Albany enjoyed under the guidance of Emily Raguso. Charles, thank you and the others for your efforts. Any chance we may resume the coffee time with Patch editors at the Royal Cafe on Monday afternoons? Thanks
Charles Burress January 21, 2013 at 07:30 AM
Allan, thanks for your comment. My colleagues Dixie Jordan and Analisa Harangozo and I were just discussing the possibility of reinstating the Albany Patch "office hour" and are hopeful we can have something like it.
David Sanger January 21, 2013 at 07:38 AM
great idea Charles..
David Sanger January 22, 2013 at 11:22 PM
@lindy. This facility won't help you in North Berkeley. Its area of coverage is Southwestern Albany with in-building coverage up Marin to a few blocks past KeyRoute plus the western part of Solano. (see http://bit.ly/XwTjjV pdf) However the good news is that there is a facility proposed for the Oaks Theater to cover North Berkeley and part of the hills (approved by ZAB, now being appealed).
Merry Selk March 11, 2013 at 06:34 PM
When are we likely to get the new towers installed and in action? Is there a target date? (Presently we get zero ATT service at our home, unless we are within 30 feet of the m-cell; and sometimes those calls drop also.)

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