Santa Rosa’s ‘pause’ apparently powerless in curbing disputed Verizon installations

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Mary Dahl has lived in the same home in Rincon Valley for 48 years.

She doesn’t have a cellphone. She doesn’t have a computer. And she doesn’t care to own either. So when Verizon proposed installing a wireless antenna on a pole just outside her house, she didn’t take too kindly to it.

“It got my Irish dander up,” says Dahl, a retired child care provider who’s in her early 70s.

She sent a letter to the company’s installer, Nexius Solutions, which was returned to sender. The company told her to send it to the attention of the “Northern California Small Cell Team,” but it came back a second time, she said.

When she called the number listed, she just got the runaround, she said.

So when the Santa Rosa City Council announced in February that is was “pausing” the installation of a network of so-called “small cell” antennas in the city, she was hopeful.

Then a few weeks later, the resident of Monte Verde Drive was notified that the permit for the antenna had been granted by the city, and construction would soon begin.

She was the only one in her little neighborhood who got such a notice, she said. A few days later, the crews arrived and began installing the equipment.

“They said it was going to be high up on the pole,” Dahl said, pointing toward the assemblage of brown boxes and cables mounted on a metal bar 7 feet off the ground on the wooden utility pole outside her home. “I don’t consider that high. I go out my front door and it’s right in my face!”

Dahl is one of dozens of Santa Rosa residents who have come to realize in recent months that, when it comes to telecommunications installations, neither the City Council nor the residents they represent have the power to pause much.

The “small cells” are just one piece of Verizon’s network expansion that have riled many residents. The company’s efforts to build full-size towers, including in a new 62-foot steeple atop Community Baptist Church on Sonoma Avenue, have also triggered backlashes. Opponents voice concerns about aesthetics and exposure to electromagnetic radiation given off by communications equipment.

Wireless providers say there are no credible studies indicating such radiation presents a threat to public health. The three American agencies charged with assessing cancer risks have said the typical exposure from cell towers is well below levels considered safe for humans.

“I’m not against the radiation, I just don’t want a 60-foot tower in my front yard,” said Matthew Mendonsa.

His neighbor directly across Sonoma Avenue from the church is so enraged he recently spray-painted a huge “Stop Verizon” sign, complete with crude red stop sign, on a piece of plywood in his front yard.

Heidi Flato, a Verizon spokeswoman, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. The company has said the small-cell network will work with larger towers to dramatically improve high-speed wireless capacity and coverage in the city.

Facing a rash of criticism over the installation of the small-cell equipment all over the city, the City Council in February ordered the project halted while it processed residents’ feedback and worked with Verizon to find solutions.

But what may not have been clear to residents or even all of the City Council at the time was that the majority of the 70 small-cell installations Verizon planned in the city, about 40 of them, were being installed on wooden PG&E utility poles in the city, over which the city has scant regulatory authority.

And what limited authority the city did have, for what is known as encroachment permits, involved whether the contractor installing the equipment was doing so according to city regulations for work in city right-of-way.

For example, workers must have proper safety gear and be properly insured and the equipment can’t be installed in such a way that blocks pedestrians.

Aesthetics and health-related objections aren’t reasons the city can deny an encroachment permit, explained Eric McHenry, the city’s director of information technology.

But those objections are exactly the ones raised by Jenna Johnson over the installations across the street from her Hexem Avenue home.

“It’s 84 feet from that pole to where two of my children lay their heads on their pillows,” Johnson said.

The equipment isn’t in yet, but a new pole has been installed in preparation for that work. The workers could install it and hook it up at any time.

“Why can’t it be in a park? Why can’t it be in a cemetery? Why can’t it be in open space? Why can’t it be in an industrial area?” Johnson said from her driveway Tuesday afternoon. “There have got to be better places for this than right in the middle of a neighborhood!”

When the City Council approved changes to the city’s telecommunications policies in 2015 that allowed the project to go forward, the council and city staff were more focused on how it could impact city-owned property, namely light poles.

In fact, the presentation to the council has been criticized as misleading for focusing almost exclusively on tidy streetlight installations in downtown commercial districts when most equipment installed so far has been in residential neighborhoods on wooden PG&E power poles.

To date, the city has approved all 39 encroachment permits Verizon has requested. Twenty sites are under construction, and three are done and operational, McHenry said.

The part of the project that proposed installing about 30 small cells atop city light poles is the piece the City Council paused in February. No permits have yet been granted for those poles. On June 5, the City Council will revisit that decision.

The city expects to make $350 per year per pole — $10,500 for Verizon’s poles and $70,000 altogether for all 200 that might eventually go in. Another company, Mobilitie, has plans for small cells on about 20 street poles.

The installations atop city light poles, with most of the wires running inside the poles, are a cleaner, simpler design that are aesthetically more pleasing to people, McHenry said. He said it is “our strong recommendation and hope” that the council will allow that part of the project to move forward.

“That is exactly where most people want them to go,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to remove the phrase “low-frequency” to describe the electromagnetic radiation from telecommunications equipment.

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