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Verizon 5G antennas put Sonomans on edge

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It was almost a full year ago, on Aug. 24, 2017, that the City of Sonoma Planning Department received the first of 10 applications from Verizon to build a series of “wireless telecommunications small cell nodes” in town, the first atop a utility pole near 725 Verano Ave.

Since that time, nine more applications have been made for such installations, most near private homes, but three of them on commercial properties. The stated reason for the multiple small cell transmitters – 5G Close Proximity Microwave Radiation Antennas, or CPMRA – is so Verizon can provide improved wireless voice and data service in town, filling in purported coverage gaps.

But opponents of the new transmitters hold that they are dangerous, untested and unnecessary.

They also contend that the Planning Department has been slow to schedule public review of the new technology in Sonoma, a failure, they say, that puts the health of Sonoma residents at risk – with potential decrease of property values if not financial liability.

Such small-cell networks have run into public opposition in several local cities, including in Petaluma which recently put a 500-foot setback from residences on the transmission devices, and Santa Rosa which “paused” the ongoing installation of the Verizon small-cell network in June.

But in Sonoma, the first public hearing on the small-cell transmission project is finally being heard late this month, on Aug. 30, a full year after the proposals were filed by Verizon.

“My concern is that whatever happens, people should be entitled to due process,” said City Councilmember Amy Harrington, whose home on East Napa Street is near one of the 10 proposed small-cell antennae. “That means a planning commission hearing, and a meaningful city council appeal, if it comes to that.”

As a member of the City Council, Harrington would be recused from council review of the project – if that were to come to pass. But as a Sonoma resident, and a cancer survivor, she is troubled by the health implications of the “close proximity microwave radiation antenna” (or CMPRA) just a few feet from her front door.

Another concerned Sonoman is Nicole Katano, who lives on Mariano Drive across the street from the site of another planned CPMRA. “There is no reason that these towers can’t be set away from homes,” said Katano, an eight-year Sonoma resident. “We weren’t alerted in a timely manner about these towers at all, we never heard a peep about it from anyone until a few weeks ago.”

As well as her health apprehensions over a 5G transmitter putting out over 110,000 units of radiation, Katano was also troubled about the effect such an array would have on property values. Her neighbor, Dave Nogue, said his house was in escrow for over $800,000 but the buyer pulled out when she heard about the planned antenna.

The house is still for sale, sporting a bold “Reduced” sign.

But Katano’s apprehension that Verizon might have been able to bypass public review altogether only changed this Thursday, when City Manager Cathy Capriola revealed an agreement reached with Verizon that suspended the seven applications for residential CMPRA, though the cell phone provider could reapply for them until the end of the year. If they do not reapply, the applications are considered withdrawn.

The three commercial locations, however – at 500 Fifth St. W. (Sonoma Market), 453 Second St. W., and 574 First. St. West – will be heard by the Planning Commission in special session on Thursday, Aug. 30. In the intervening month, a telecommunications consultant hired by the city will perform a technical evaluation of the three commercial small cell sites, assessing the need, siting, visual and noise effects, and the “operational capacity of the proposed facilities and support equipment.”

The high level of microwave radiation such antennae emit falls under “operational capacity.” Verizon, according to Capriola, will bear the cost of the technical evaluation.

However, for Katano, Harrington and others, the best news might be that the city has negotiated a way around the 150-day “stop clock” regulation, which permits a wireless telecommunications company to consider an application accepted if it is not rejected or returned for revision in 150 days. Reads Capriola’s message, “Verizon has agreed not to assert the timing requirements under Federal or State law (i.e. stop clock) as long as final determination on the applications is made within the timelines outlined above” – a 90-day period following Planning Commission review, or Nov. 30.

The Verizon small-cell technology is being rolled out by the Communications Based Resource Group, or the CBR Group. Their argument for the enhanced 5G technology is that since wireless communication has become so much a part of daily life, improved wireless service is essential.

“As the community’s demands for data area are increasing exponentially, we are required to go more closely into the areas where people use their phones, such as neighborhoods, urban areas, and commercial complexes,” reads the “Justification” portion of the 10 applications.

The same section includes the following assertion: “California Public Utilities Code section 7901 grants wireless providers the right to place wireless facilities along public rights-of-way without a lease or license.”

The CBR Group also includes charts on Community Benefits and Smart Cities, pointing out that 90 percent of American households use wireless services, 52 percent have only wireless telephone service, and the average home has 13 connected devices (not just cell phones but tablets, speakers, user assistance devices such as Amazon Echo, even thermostats and other “Internet of Things” devices).

Capriola said information, including review and comment process, will continue to be updated on the city website at sonomacity.org/small-cell-towers, and encourages public participation at the Thursday, Aug. 30, special session of the Planning Commission, to be held at the Council Chambers at 177 First St. W.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.