New regulations present updates to Belmont cellular service
Anita Beroza, 2021-22 Editorial Board Member
November 7, 2021
On Oct. 26, city council members held a public hearing at the city council meeting for new legislation about wireless telecommunication regulations, which encompasses changes to how wireless facilities, like cell phone towers, are approved and built.
This ordinance presents modifications to fix the review without a chance for rejection with three sections of local law: Belmont Zoning Ordinance (BZO) 25, BZO 35, and Belmont City Code (BCC) Chapter 22, Article VIII.
These regulations were first established in 1987 and have not been updated since 1996 — many zoning regulations do not change for extended periods. However, such a change is more necessary with the recent increase in personal cell phone use and other technology.
Currently, these regulations require review for new facilities. However, new federal and state laws prohibit the assessment of facilities in how Belmont carries them out, as City Councilmember Tom McCune experienced during his time on the Belmont Planning Commission.
“It was the weirdest confluence of regulation: local law required us to review these [wireless facilities applications], but federal law denied us the possibility of rejecting them. So basically, we had to review them, and we had to approve them,” McCune said. “It always seemed like the most wasteful nonsense of a process.”
While locations cannot technically be banned from facility construction, the ordinance would establish preferred and discouraged sites for most non-public areas in BZO 35 and public right-of-way areas in BCC Chapter 22, Article VIII.
“The preferred to less preferred locations are voluntary, but there are some incentives built into the ordinance to encourage [preferred locations], usually a shorter application — fewer hoops to jump through,” said Gary Baum, a legal counsel who works with the City of Belmont. “But I would be misleading you to tell you we could reject every disfavored location in the city.”
“We have very little discretion to deny a project,” said Damon DiDonato.
BZO 25 covers antennas that receive or transmit signals, and the presented amendments would add regulations to installing and maintaining antennas and changing permit requirements for certain antennas. In addition, the material in section seven (BZO 25.7) would be removed, and the regulations of personal wireless services facilities previously in it would be moved to BZO 35.
BZO 35 would regulate the deployment and maintenance of wireless facilities. It establishes official preferred and discouraged locations, preferred designs, performance standards, and designs that are pre-approved by the city.
BCC Chapter 22, Article VIII, would be a new addition to Chapter 22 of the city code. Chapter 22 focuses on Belmont streets and sidewalks regulations. Article VIII would establish many things similar to BZO 35, but it would be for public right-of-way areas, like streets and highways, rather than private ones.
DiDonato claims that there are two main reasons for the updates of the regulations on wireless communications infrastructure.
“Number one, the city’s regulations currently don’t meet the needs of the community, and they don’t meet future needs,” DiDonato said. “The use of wireless facilities has become significantly more data-dependent, and this requires a more broadly based distributed network that is closer to the end-user. It’s not something that we have in place right now. The city’s current regulations do not readily accommodate or allow for this type of network, and thus they don’t meet the current and future needs of the population.”
Essentially, current wireless facilities require network changes that position facilities that are more spread out and closer to the person using the network — that is, a person on their phone, computer, or another device — and current city regulations do not accommodate such a setup well. The second issue, according to Hutchings, involves updating laws at the broader state and federal levels.
“The city’s regulations are inconsistent with the current state and federal laws, which require the city to really treat wireless facilities more like a utility. They significantly limit the city’s discretion, and they drastically reduced the timeframe for review of wireless projects, known as the shot clock,” DiDonato said.
The proposed ordinance is expected to come to a vote before the Belmont City Council in Nov. 2021.