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Supervisors set to determine future of 5G telecommunications in Plumas

This telecommunications tower was erected recently in the Chilcoot area. A second is planned for Beckwourth. While towers assist telecom companies in preparing the way for 5G accesses, some are concerned about long-range affects. Photo by Lauren Westmoreland

Members of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors have decisions to make when it comes to an environmental review under CEQA guidelines and the  adoption of a draft telecommunications ordinance during a public hearing Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 1 p.m.

While members of the Plumas County Planning Commission are encouraging supervisors to adopt their recommendations that would allow for more and taller telecom towers in Plumas as well as mini cell sites, another group is requesting further study and a reliance on existing systems. Fiber optics and other broadband sources can be more successfully implemented, according to a citizens group.

The Planning Commission is encouraging essentially what corporate telecom representatives are promoting in presentations during public planning meetings. This is 5G access with more and better cell phone coverage, and more download capacity. Telecom companies include AT&T and Verizon among others.

Plumas Residents for Safer Telecommunications wants its concerns heard and for supervisors to study what the Planning Commission’s recommendation could mean to Plumas County. On the other hand, if a decision isn’t reached soon, more towers, such as the one that just went up in Chilcoot and another slated for Beckwourth will be constructed.

The telecom businesses are promoting speed of up to 100 gigabits per second. 5G is said to be as much as 1,000 times faster than the 4G that’s now available. 5G will actually become available in 2020. Some cities across the U.S. already have 5G, including Sacramento, but an increasing number of communities and counties are beginning to reject 5G and what it could mean.

What the Planning Commission is proposing covers what 5G can do for consumers. What the citizens group is focusing on is what 5G can potentially do to residents and the environment.

Telecommunications are important to the area, explained Josh Hart, spokesperson for Plumas Residents for Safer Telecom. “Telecommunications is critical, especially in an emergency,” Hart told supervisors during public comment period at a December meeting. “And we learned from the Camp Fire that wireless failed to provide service when it was needed, leading to unnecessary deaths and injuries.”

Although the cause of the Nov. 8 Camp Fire has not officially been determined, it’s believed that the fire started at a PG&E power line near Pulga in the Feather River Canyon. Within 18 minutes of its alleged ignition, dry conditions, available fuels and winds rapidly spread the flames. In the case of the Camp Fire, some telecom lines were destroyed before residents in Paradise and its surrounding area could be alerted to danger.

“We need a robust communication system that works when the power is out,” Hart said, “and is not as vulnerable to fire.”

Although many residents have discontinued using landlines, that technology is still available. When wireless fails, as it did in the Camp Fire, standard landlines are available. Their construction is different and far more durable than other telecom means. “Landlines are a critical safety link that do not depend on the electrical grid to function,” Hart said.

According to the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office, landlines are automatically signed up for emergency alerts. Users must add cell phone numbers and the department directly contacted for residents to receive emergency alerts.

The destructive forces of wildfires aside, the citizens group has other concerns. These include higher radiation concerns to humans and wildlife, and aesthetics.

According to Hart, there are other concerns including where telecom companies can place their towers, potential property values to homes where towers and mini cell towers could be located, and the ultimate power the county would be turning over to utility companies.

List of considerations

What members of Plumas Residents for Safer Telecom are requesting includes:

– Mailed notification to residents and landowners within 1,000 feet of a proposed wireless facility and signage.

– A maximum tower height of 100 feet, not 200 feet.

– An elimination of exemptions for wireless facilities in Timberland Production Zones, wireless set up for  news events and small cells under 35 feet.

– Prioritize wire telecommunication including cable, fiber optics and others not mentioned in the draft ordinance.

– The removal of non-conformance section that would allow cell towers to remain that don’t comply with current building codes.

– The requirement of official certification by an engineer that poles will not blow over, or cause fire during high winds. These guarantees are not now included.

– The addition that public hearings are required as part of the permit process, which is currently not included.

– A requirement that permits are required for all changes to telecom equipment.

– Require a 1,500-foot setback from any residential dwelling where a cell site might be located.

– Require warning signs on all buildings with cell towers to alert maintenance workers about the antenna and minimize risks.

– To specify that the county can deny incomplete applications.

Recommended ordinance

Plumas County Assistant Planner Tim Evans stated at an Oct. 18 public hearing that 21 workshops were held by the commission beginning July 6, 2017, through Sept. 6, 2018. Not only was the commission and planning staff at these meetings, but a representative of county counsel and the public was invited. “The Planning Commission workshops were part of the regularly scheduled Planning Commission Meetings,” according to Evans.

“The Planning Commission agendas for every meeting were posted 72 hours in advance on the County website under the Planning Commission’s webpage, as well as being posted on the bulletin board in front of the Planning and Building Services building.”

Recommendations were published, as required by law, four times in the newspapers of record owned and operated by Feather Publishing in Plumas County.

According to the analysis, telecommunications facilities are exempt from regulatory oversight by the county. This means that the FCC is in charge, according to Planning Director Randy Wilson.

The change within the code is that the ordinance would implement a set of standards for design and placement of telecommunications facilities in all unincorporated areas of the county. The city of Portola is the only incorporated area.

This includes all residential zones, suburban, secondary suburban, rural, core commercial, periphery convenience commercial, all recreational and industrial, agricultural and timberland productions areas. Telecommunications facilities are not allowed in open space or lake zones.

And there are many other recommended exemptions and changes. For a complete reading of the extensive draft, contact the Plumas County Planning Department at 555 Main St. in Quincy.

After discussing the ordinance changes, Evans said that he found there would be no significant impact to the environment. This comment was met with laughter from the audience at the October meeting.

“We can’t even declare a moratorium,” Commissioner Larry Williams said about going around FCC regulations. And Wilson agreed, “We don’t have the ability to override the FCC.”

Commissioner Jeff Greening said that money is at the heart of the difficulties, not locally, but with the companies that have the power to impact FCC decision-making.

Deputy County Counsel Gretchen Struh reminded everyone that there is control over the aesthetics locally, but not the deployment of the operations.

The ordinance would amend Title 9 of the county’s zoning code by adding Article 41 to Chapter 2.

Members voted three to one to approve the draft ordinance. Williams said he didn’t see the need to include 5G at this time. One seat was vacant on the board.

Who is Josh Hart?

Josh Hart, spokesperson for Plumas Residents for Safer Telecom shows one of the EMFields Acoustimeter RF meters he uses to determine electromagnetic field levels in a given area. Hart has made arrangements at the Plumas County libraries to make these meters available for checkout to the public. For more information on the meters and how to use one call the toll-free number 888-965-6436. Photo by Victoria Metcalf

Josh Hart, who lives near Portola, holds a master’s in transportation planning. He has dual citizenship in the United Kingdom and upon his return to the U.S. following the completion of his master’s, he became aware of the impact that some telecommunications was having on a broad range of people and wildlife in the U.S.

Hart has been actively raising public awareness and advocating for safer forms of telecommunication in Northern California. He also joins a bipartisan audience across the nation that is voicing its concerns, and advocating legislation limiting telecommunication companies’ powers.

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