T-Mobile backs off on tower

GLENDALE — T-Mobile USA Inc. plans to drop its opposition to a city moratorium on cellular towers and work with residents and city staff members on a proposed antenna that sparked a grass-roots movement from neighbors, company officials said Thursday.

The announcement followed a City Council vote Wednesday to place a moratorium on cellular towers, specifically targeting T-Mobile’s proposed installation in northwest Glendale — which neighbors said would lower property values and could be detrimental to their health.

“We thought about it last night and realize that this is a good thing,” said Clark Harris, a senior manager for the telecommunication company. “It’s going to allow us to sit and spend some time with the community at large and move forward and have a good ordinance.”

Council members said they intend to impose a 45-day freeze on all cell towers — specifically T-Mobile’s proposal to install a 29-foot street lamp and pole upon which the wireless antenna would be mounted. The council plans to formally vote on the moratorium at Tuesday’s meeting, and the ordinance would likely be enacted within 30 days, officials said.

The about-face from the telecommunications company occurred less than 24 hours after a T-Mobile attorney wrote to the council, contending that a moratorium is unnecessary and illegal.

In the letter, attorney Tania B. Dao said “the city’s plan to block T-Mobile’s access to the public right-of-way violates several provisions . . . of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996.”

That federal law generally prohibits cities from challenging telecommunications companies. But a September ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave greater power to a local municipality — San Diego County — than courts had previously granted.

Though federal law gives Glendale limited legal wiggle room, Harris said T-Mobile has no plans to sue the city — as Glendale attorneys expected they would.

“At this stage, no lawsuit,” Harris said. “We are going to be very engaged with residents and staff.”

If enacted, the ordinance could precipitously change future construction of cellular towers in Glendale, Mayor John Drayman said.

Not only would it freeze installation of a T-Mobile tower on Cumberland Avenue, but it would also stop the installation of “a significant number” of other antennas, Drayman said.

Construction of five cellular towers in Glendale are now on hold, and 11 other requests to install antennas have been frozen due to the moratorium, Public Works Director Steve Zurn said.

In addition to the site on Cumberland Avenue, sites on Chevy Chase Drive, Sunshine Drive, Camino San Rafael and Clement Drive are affected, he said. Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Sprint have inquired about building cellular towers in Glendale, but their requests have been put on hold.

The process by which cellular towers are constructed could also change, with the council and the city’s upper management slated to play a greater role in deciding when and where antennas should be erected if the ordinance passes. Now, city staff members are charged with completing work orders on cellular towers in Glendale — a process many have called into question.

“There is an acknowledgment that these kinds of quality-of-life decisions made on a staff level without higher oversight are not appropriate,” Drayman said. “It shows our ordinance, as it is, is inadequate.”

The issue ignited a storm of controversy from residents on and near Cumberland Avenue, many of whom mounted a multimedia blitz to stop T-Mobile from forging ahead with their tower.

The group, which calls itself Glendale Organized Against Cell Towers, flooded council chambers Wednesday night after a two-month campaign to press their issue on radio, television, the Internet and in newspapers.

Even with Wednesday night’s unanimous support from the council, the issue will not likely die down in the coming months.

Christina R. Sansone, an attorney with the city’s Public Works Department, said Glendale would be well within its legal rights to extend the moratorium for up to six months, though there are no plans to do that yet.

Sansone has received no indication that T-Mobile will mount a legal challenge to Glendale’s action, but “this is probably the case where the city is sued by the telecom companies,” she said.

“We would defend this vigorously,” Sansone added. “We feel we’re on solid ground to enact a short-term moratorium. We feel the law is on our side.”

As the city works around the legal questions, neighbors are regrouping to keep up the pressure on T-Mobile and Glendale officials.

Marguerite Lincoln, a key organizer for the group, said she will meet with other top coordinators against cell tower expansion next week and will hold a meeting with neighbors “soon.”

Harris is also working on setting up a meeting with residents, tentatively scheduling a forum for January and could be open to moving the cell tower — one of the demands from residents.

“There is still need for coverage area,” Harris said. “The need has not gone away. Am I married to this physical site? No. Do we need to get up in that area and provide coverage? Yeah.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln is considering forming a national group with another regional faction against cell tower expansion in the unincorporated city of Windsor Hills. Together, the groups could further challenge federal law and strengthen local municipalities control against telecommunications companies, she said.

“This is an issue that won’t be resolved any time soon,” she said. “The 9th circuit helps but it doesn’t give them all the power [cities] need. The only way that’s going to happen is to make changes to the federal Telecommunications Act.”

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World