SAN MARCOS — Tuesday night’s San Marcos City Council discussion of its proposed cell tower ordinance was a virtual repeat of the debate its planning commission had three weeks ago — with similar results.
The City Council voted 4-1 in favor of adopting the new cell-tower regulations, despite calls from opponents of the cell towers and wireless companies to send the ordinance back to staff.
“I don’t know if the ordinance is perfect,” Mayor Jim Desmond said. “But I think it does try to strike a balance between neighborhood protection and the aesthetics of the utility.”
The lone holdout, Councilman Chris Orlando, said he believed the city needed an ordinance that satisfied the concerns of both sides.
“I don’t think we got it right,” Orlando said.
The new rules would, among other things, discourage wireless carriers from installing towers in residential and agricultural areas by requiring them to seek a conditional-use permit (as opposed to a less onerous administrative permit) and provide the city with technical data that proves the location is necessary to bridge a significant gap in coverage and is the only possibly location that would do it.
The ordinance also sets a maximum allowable towers on a given property based on its size. For example, a 10.1-acre parcel could have a maximum of three cell towers.
The debate over the towers played out much like at the planning commission: a group of neighbors in San Elijo Hills, spearheaded by John Signorino, said the ordinance didn’t go far enough to protect residents from clusters of towers, which would result in community blight and devaluation of their properties.
Signorino, much like at the planning commission, repeatedly referenced the San Elijo Hills tower controversy, arguing that the proposed ordinance would exacerbate the current problem rather than fix it.
His strongest criticisms, however, were that the ordinance did not require the city to seek a third-party analysis of the wireless companies’ technical data, and that the ordinance did not mandate a minimum distance between towers and homes and for companies to install newer, smaller, less intrusive technology.
“This ordinance is way too weak,” Signorino said. “It is unenforceable.”
City staff said such mandates are illegal.
Representatives from several wireless carriers, however, said the ordinance went too far, beyond the cope of current federal laws, and could expose the city to lawsuits on behalf of the carriers.
“Who is going to stand up for the 85,000 people who live in this city?” said John Osborne, AT&T’s external communications director. “We are trying to fill gaps in our network. The ordinance you have in front of you says, “Let’s take the most onerous things we can create and have that as our baseline, but we will have this ‘safety valve’ so we can say we meet federal regulations.”
Several city council members asked staff if they believed the ordinance would stand up to a legal challenge.
“Is this defensible?” Councilwoman Sharon Jenkins asked. “Have we crossed all of our T’s and dotted our I’s.”
“This is far from just words on paper,” said Jonathan Kramer, a wireless law expert contracted by the city to draft the policy. “We wouldn’t bring it to you if it wasn’t defensible or legal.”