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Local News

Cell Company NextG Hoping for Positive Reception from County Supervisors

The company says it's willing to cut out two of the most controversial sites for its proposed towers

The battle for cell coverage in Montecito rages on, and the issue is slated to go before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Cell company NextG wants to put up “node” — or antenna — sites in Montecito, but residents have appealed 10 of the locations because of their proximity to homes, schools and view corridors.

The Montecito Planning Commission denied the projects in January, taking issue with how they were permitted. Since then, the issue has been before the county supervisors several times, and the board ultimately will make the decision.

County staff is recommending that supervisors deny the company’s appeal of the decision. A coastal development permit is needed to allow construction and use of the installations.

Each unit would have a 26-inch whip antenna and an equipment box, both of which would be in plain sight. The utility box also could be hidden underground, leaving only the antenna visible, which is an approach other carriers, such AT&T, have used.

The staff contends that leaving the utility box visible wouldn’t be consistent with the Montecito Community Plan, which says that the development along roads shouldn’t impinge on the area’s character, and requires that the design “blend into the environment to the greatest extent feasible.”

Once installed, the network would provide coverage for cell company MetroPCS.

The Federal Communications Commission issued a declaratory ruling in November stating that state and local governments can’t deny an application solely because the service is available from another provider. So, just because Montecito residents get coverage from AT&T or Verizon, for example, doesn’t mean the county can deny NextG’s application for MetroPCS.

The county can deny the project for aesthetic reasons. But if NextG proves it has a significant gap in its coverage, the county must provide an alternate location for the project, while still filling in that gap.

The company hasn’t demonstrated the need for service, however. County staff sent a letter in March asking that the company talk about any significant gaps in service that might occur if the sites weren’t installed. The company declined to provide any information. Local jurisdiction can’t prevent cell companies from filling significant gaps in coverage, but since the cell company didn’t provide any info, the county can’t decipher how big a gap in coverage there is, according to staff reports.

In the past, Montecito residents who have spoken out on the project have cited health concerns. They’ve argued that the electromagnetic frequencies the devices emit could have health consequences to those who live or go to school near them.

More recent arguments, however, are centered on the project’s aesthetics. The Federal Communications Act pre-empts the county from prohibiting the antennas based on health concerns, assuming the locations comply with the threshold deemed safe by the FCC.

In an e-mail sent out last Friday, NextG spokesman Patrick Ryan said that of the 10 nodes proposed for Montecito, the company was willing to cut out two of the most controversial — the nodes slated for an area near School House Road and another near Santa Rosa and San Leandro.

“While we understand that the community may not completely support this proposed reduction,” Ryan wrote, “we are hopeful that this may help lead to support of the community for other approvals.”

He said the coverage is needed, but that the gesture was intended to show the community that “we do hear their concerns and are willing to work with them.”

“Everything we have ever proposed in Montecito has been denied by the Montecito Planning Commission — both overhead and underground,” Ryan wrote in an e-mail to Noozhawk. However, he said Hope Ranch has approved a similar amount of installations in its community. “We do not understand why the positive way that the community in Hope Ranch views our installations is so different from the community in Montecito ... both with similar needs to provide wireless coverage, but each has polar opposite reactions to our proposal.”

With Montecito in a difficult area with curving roads, hills and wooded terrain, and very difficult to cover from a large site, Ryan said the plan uses existing infrastructure.

Montecito resident Abe Powell said putting the utilities underground isn’t enough.

“As far as the community is concerned, a fake utility company has come to Santa Barbara representing another company that wants to sell us cell service,” he said. “We didn’t ask them to do that.”

Powell has been a vocal opponent of the installation of the nodes and said he got involved when he discovered one was to be installed just outside his daughter’s classroom.

“We said, ‘Hey, that’s not how we want to be served,’ but they told us we didn’t have any say in the matter,” he said.

Powell said the area is served by three cell companies, so it’s not as if they were opposed to cell service in general. But the process rubbed many residents the wrong way, and placing the nodes in more residential areas instead of commercial ones rallied some of the residents.

“We live in some of the tightest architecturally regulated areas around,” Powell said. “We’re told what color to paint our houses, what kinds of plants to put in. ... There’s no way in hell that any of us could put in one of these and expect to get a permit for that.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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