Last week cellular company Next G gained approval from the county board of supervisors to install a system of wireless antennas — or “nodes” — in Montecito, ending the town’s attempt to block the arrival of the cell sites.
Originally, the permits that Next G requested included plans for mounting 10 above-ground cellular nodes on poles along several streets in the city. However, the Montecito Planning Commission denied the company’s request because they were concerned about the impact that the nodes would have on the city’s look. Last week, things changed again when Next G proposed deeper plans — to install the cell nodes underground.
According to Michael Phillips, head of Planning and Development on the Montecito Planning Commission, Next G was unable to bar the cellular nodes on grounds of health or safety risks because of a federal statute disassociating cellular devices with health or safety risks.
“The Federal Communications Commission really limits what local governments can deny over environmental or health concerns,” Phillips said. “What we do have are some local zoning laws that allow us to look at what the impact on the aesthetics of the community would be.”
After the denial from Montecito, Next G brought county supervisors a modified plan with a more aesthetically pleasing design, which included the complete exclusion of two of the 10 proposed nodes, and called for placing the remaining eight nodes in underground vaults to lessen the negative impacts they would have on local scenery.
“Next G appealed the decision to the board of supervisors, and after much discussion and compromise Next G was able to come up with an undergrounding compromise that got the community to be more supportive,” Phillips said. “They also said that if you approve our appeals for these items we will remove some of the nodes altogether.”
According to 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the compromise was an alternative that offered the local community a chance to moderate the imminent construction of the nodes.
“Since the planning commission took action, the staff was able to induce them into dealing with the visual issues which were the central point of the appeals, and they came up with the solution to go underground and vault the equipment,” Carbajal said. “At the end of the day the good news, if there is good news, is that Next G was able to work with our county staff to the undergrounding of a lot of the equipment for the antennas.”
In spite of the revised permit appeals, Carbajal said the compromise was bittersweet and that the board was left with little choice other than to accept.
“While still not happy, we really had no choice,” Carbajal said. “If we litigated, we were limited as to how much more we could ask Next G to do within the law. In the end they kind of had a gun to our head, but at the same time they did step up and vault the equipment.”
Carbajal also said he hopes the difficulties in reaching an acceptable solution for both parties will stand as a lesson for future development.
“At the end, this was the best we could do, and what is really disappointing about this, is this whole skirmish and this whole problem could have been avoided if they had worked with the community from the beginning, and they did not,” Carbajal said. “The lesson from this is if you work with the community and you work with the county and in good faith, you can usually come up with good solutions.”