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Cell Sites Become a Towering Concern

As firms add equipment to utility poles, the City Council wants to make sure residents have a say.

October 06, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Maybe it's purely coincidental, 93-year-old Sylvia Jacobson admits.

But her heart's pacemaker started malfunctioning within days of the abrupt installation last month of a 50-foot wireless phone "micro-cell" site on a pole in front of her Hollywood Hills home.

The new T-Mobile transmitter and antenna hang from a Canyon Drive telephone pole just steps from the front door of the house where she has lived for more than 65 years. A massive Cingular Wireless cell site is under construction a block to the north and a smaller Sprint unit has been attached to a phone pole a block south.

The sudden explosion of cellphone sites in the neighborhood beneath the Hollywood sign illustrates the wireless industry's attempt to put an end to the spotty reception in hilly areas across Los Angeles.

The quest to reduce dropped calls has resulted in micro-cells popping up by the hundreds across the region -- but especially in hillside and canyon areas that traditionally have the worst service.

Although it may be welcomed by cellphone-using motorists, the installation has prompted a revolt among Jacobson and her neighbors, who complain they are being given no say in where the antennas and the boxy transmitting equipment are installed.

The outcry has sent Los Angeles leaders scrambling for ways to regulate cellular installations that until now have seemed untouchable by local officials.

Today, the City Council will be asked to impose new rules that could force a little-known, quasi-governmental group that controls the use of public utility poles in the city to give residents a voice in the rental of pole space to wireless companies.

Council members Janice Hahn and Tom LaBonge plan to announce the proposed crackdown beneath the T-Mobile cellular site in front of Jacobson's house before submitting the proposal at City Hall.

The officials say the ordinance would close a loophole that allows wireless companies to install cellular equipment on existing utility poles without local oversight. Installations atop commercial businesses or residential dwellings are overseen by city zoning administrators.

"People are waking up one morning to see a big pole installed in front of their home," said Hahn, calling upon wireless companies to be "better neighbors."

LaBonge acknowledged that people want to have cellular phone service everywhere. But "the industry has to step up a little more to show that these sites are not neighborhood health hazards," he said.

In both of their council districts, Hahn and LaBonge say, cellular providers often replace short utility poles with taller ones. That work is done with the approval of the Southern California Joint Pole Authority. The coalition of 10 regional cities, governmental agencies and telecommunications companies controls the use of utility poles for cable television lines, among other things.

As cellular phone business has grown and the search for new tower sites has become more frantic, the Joint Pole Authority has begun approving 30-year pole-space rental agreements for wireless companies. The use of telephone and power poles as cellular sites was approved in 1996 when the federal Telecommunications Act designated cellular facilities as utilities.

Cities that are not part of the Joint Pole Authority, such as Beverly Hills, exert control over placement and appearance of cellphone towers within their boundaries. Other municipalities have required cellular towers to look like trees, artwork or architectural features.

Earlier this year, however, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down parts of a La Canada Flintridge law that had allowed the city to withhold permits for cellphone poles on public rights of way for purely aesthetic reasons.

Executives with Verizon Wireless and Sprint said Thursday they were unaware of the proposed Los Angeles ordinance.

"We have certain coverage needs," said Sprint spokeswoman Kathleen Dunleavy. But "we try to work with the community."

Officials with Cingular and T-Mobile could not be reached for comment.

Canyon Drive residents said they are pleased with the proposed ordinance. About 200 of them have signed a petition calling for stricter city controls over micro-cell sites.

Alexander von Wechmar, a correspondent for German television and a leader of the neighborhood's Oaks Homeowners Assn., said residents worry both about the industrial-looking appearance of the cell sites and the potential health hazard from radiated power pumped out by the transmitters.

"By putting them on residential poles, the wireless companies don't face the zoning and safety issues they would, say, down on Franklin Avenue," von Wechmar said Thursday. "If they can get all of their apparatus on the pole, they don't need any permit at all."

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