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Proposed SF ordinance would place new restrictions on cell phone antennas

Under legislation proposed by Supervisor John Avalos, cell phone carriers would face new restrictions when installing new cell phone antennas on public property.

With its hilly terrain, dense urban population, and plenty of government red tape, San Francisco already is a difficult place for cell phone carriers to build new antennas. But that process could become even more complicated if the city approves new aesthetics restrictions for antenna installation on public property.

Under the Personal Wireless Service Facility Site Permits Ordinance (PDF), introduced Tuesday by SF Supervisor John Avalos, antenna applicants would have to consider the visual impact of any new installations. The city could also reject applications based on that factor alone.

Jonas Ionin, senior planner for the San Francisco Planning Department, said his department is encouraging the city's Planning Commission to approve the ordinance. "We're trying to improve the [approval] process for the industry," he said. "Improving aesthetics is the main goal."

The ongoing tussle between cell phone carriers and local governments like San Francisco reflects a complex dynamic between a public desire for better cell phone service and local resistance to new antennas. As CNET's Erica Ogg reported last month, cell carriers are responding to aesthetic concerns by installing new antennas in church steeples, at the top of buildings, or on utility poles.

Avalos' ordinance, however, would ban new utility poles built solely for new antennas. It would also require special permits for large antennas on public property, force carriers to plant trees to disguise antennas in some locations, and oblige the city to notify neighbors of new installations. Neighbors would then have the opportunity to protest new antennas and force a hearing with the Department of Public Works.

"The ordinance moves the process to the Public Works code where it belongs," Ionin said. At the time of this writing, Avalaos' office did not respond to CNET's request for comment.

Though the concern over the visual impact of antennas is nothing new, it is one area where local governments have more leeway to approve or reject towers applications. Currently, the San Francisco Department of Public Health reviews tower applications to ensure they meet FCC safety regulations, but federal regulations prohibit imposing additional safety restrictions.

The San Francisco Planning Commission was scheduled to hear the ordinance Thursday, but Ionin said any action is now scheduled for later this month. If the commission passes the ordinance, it will then go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.