Councilors Debating Whether to Give up Cell Antennae Permitting

Nothing has taken up more hours of debate on the Everett City Council during the Technology Age than the placement of cell towers and cell antennae.

Debates for hours at a time have raged for the last 10 years at the Council over safety, placements and aesthetics of cell antennae – which are critical for companies to provide residents and businesses with seamless and quick cell phone and Internet services.

Now, in the wake of a lawsuit this month by Verizon Wireless against the Council – and a general overall debate that started during the pandemic – the Council will discuss at an Aug. 27 Council Committee whether they should keep this power or relinquish it.

It is an interesting debate, as these towers and antennae are some of the most hotly contested pieces on agendas for residents of Everett. It isn’t uncommon for a half-dozen residents to speak up against a cell antenna on their street, and call for councilors to defeat the request. However, such equipment is highly-regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and have been proven safe in almost all circumstances, and so there is actually very little the Council can do – hence the lawsuit by Verizon which has a high likelihood of prevailing.

Councilor Fred Capone filed the piece some time ago before the lawsuit was made known, and he plans to examine what can be done with these cell requests – but he’s not in favor of giving up the power.

“The reality is when we put together this ordinance (on cell antennae), this was all new to us,” he said. “Now, Everett is a hotbed for these antennae. These are heavily regulated by the FCC and we cities and towns don’t have a lot of say. To the extent we can protect our residents, we want to see what we can do.”

Capone said he isn’t in favor at all of ceding the power to permit cell infrastructure, despite the lawsuit. He said it gives residents a strong voice on the matter, and it makes the Council more accountable.

“If we pass that power over, you just put your hands in the air and say that we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “I think you want to be careful as an elected official what power you turn over because eventually you have no reason to exist…I don’t think it’s a good idea the Council gives away its authority here. I think it should remain in the hands of elected officials because we’re accountable.”

Meanwhile, Councilor Michael McLaughlin – who has been active in these matters in attending meetings about cell antennae – said he would prefer not to have that power at the Council. He said there are too many restrictions on what the Council can and cannot do, and it probably belongs in the hands of a Public Works Commission.

“I strongly believe this matter should be in front of the Department of Public Works Commission,” he said. “They address all street and sidewalk matters. It is very clear and has been my position since holding office. My bosses are the residents across Everett. If a resident comes before the City Council and strongly opposes a location, I will work with the company and resident or residents to try and find a second location. If that doesn’t work then I must follow the wish of my boss as any employee does at work. We all might not always agree with our boss but they are the ones in charge of making final decisions. This situation is no different if a resident doesn’t want this antenna located I will continue to vote no on them. It’s absolutely a different matter if no resident comes forward against the proposal. I then can use my judgement and grant permission off what I believe. I strongly believe the DPW Commission is better suited to address this matter going forward.”

Next week, also, Councilor Stephanie Martins will have specific antenna requests in front of her committee, Public Safety. She said she is in favor of better communication, but isn’t sure if giving away that power is the best thing for residents.

“The first thing I think needs to happen is better communication,” she said. “In the past, the City Council received a folder with all of the information…The residents don’t necessarily get to see that information. It leaves us with a bad look because as long as the FCC controls this, we can’t act in accordance with residents. Even if we vote it down as a statement, we end up having no power over it. Yet, if we transfer it from the City Council, it could take a voice away from the citizens because this is a public meeting with public participation. It’s challenging because we all need better service too.”

The overall matter will be debated by the Council in an online Committee meeting on Aug. 27.

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