City council, Mar. 18, 2013

Before I discuss the March 18 meeting, I want to cover a few cell phone-related items:

First, as I have many times before, I took my inexpensive RF field strength meters and made several measurements around town. Basically, there are no locations where the field strength is more than one-half of one percent of the FCC standards for cell phone communications. I found that level near cell towers. The numbers just go down (way down) from there, depending upon distance and topography.

The city’s new wireless consultant, Peter Gruchawka, (Gru-chaw-ka) will make professional readings for the city, something I’ve advocated for years. We’ll see if he finds anything much different. He is far more knowledgeable about FCC measuring protocols, and he will have better equipment than me.

Second, The City of Berkeley approved a new AT&T cell base station on the Oaks Theater at the top of Solano Ave. I’ve heard it will mostly provide better service to the Berkeley hills, but locations near Solano Ave. should also get better coverage. I think the rising topography east of Colusa Ave. will block much of the signal to the north.

Third, an AT&T proposal for a new cell base station should go before the Albany Planning and Zoning commission in late April. The site is the Sunny Side Café building on Solano Ave. If this site is approved, between these two new locations and the recently approved site at 1035 San Pablo Ave. in Albany, AT&T cell phone reception locally should get much better in the next year or so.


The meeting covered a few important issues. We heard from our new wireless consultant, Peter Gruchawka, about the feasibility of wireless facilities on city property. There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that city staff found an excellent consultant in Gruchawka. He is very knowledgeable and competent, so I am looking forward to working with him. The bad news is that siting towers on city property doesn’t make much sense.


Three locations were considered–Albany Hill, City Hall and the Community Center. All three are problematic. City Hall has little space and already contains antennas for public safety radio communications. In the past the police and fire departments have balked at the idea of putting more antennas there due to the possibility of interference. I suspect they will again.

The Albany Hill park is in the early phases of a master plan process that will probably include CEQA review and approvals from other Bay Area public agencies. Getting a cell tower built there will take years, which I suspect is why our dwindling ranks of local cell tower opponents are pushing for that location.

The community center is located in a residential neighborhood and cell towers are not allowed there under our current ordinance. Nor are they allowed in parks, for that matter. So the community center location just seems like a red herring (as do the other sites).

During the meeting I made two points. The obvious location for new cell base stations will be the UC mixed use project, which is a better option than any of the city-owned sites in the long run. The odds are very good that the mixed-use project will get underway in the next year or two, but there could be further delays.

I also pointed out that under state law, cell providers cannot be compelled to use city-owned sites if they prefer privately-owned sites. So even if the city provided these locations, and spent money to build out the infrastructure, there is no guarantee that AT&T, Verizon and other cell providers would be interested.


Next on the agenda was revising our cell tower ordinance. At first, council members Atkinson and Wile stated that they were comfortable with the existing ordinance. However, Albany resident David Sanger reminded the council that in the Nov. 2012 election, the remaining council members (Barnes, Mass, Thomsen) had all pledged to revise the ordinance.

Thomsen and Wile deserve credit for working out the compromise that the Planning and Zoning commission will provide a report with pros and cons of revising the ordinance. I thought this was a reasonable start, even it part of the package deal was having our wireless consultant pursue city-owned sites (a waste of money, as explained above). But both motions passed unanimously.

See the Albany Journal’s Damin Esper for his take on the meeting (here).


City manager Beth Pollard provided the council with a report recommending we hire a full-time fire chief for Albany. Our previous chief, Edward Tubbs, was shared with Piedmont. Although he did a great job at managing both positions, Piedmont was not interested in continuing the sharing arrangement when Chief Tubbs announced his retirement.

The council endorsed the idea of seeking a full time chief. One of the benefits of maintaining our professional fire department is that our fire department emergency responders are top notch, and under regional agreements, they have the right to transport victims all the way to the hospital. Other local cities have handed off this responsibility to private ambulance companies. This can cause a disruption in the treatment of victims.

The council heard from Albany residents that maintaining our fire department’s transport rights was important, and urged the council not to jeopardize those rights by outsourcing fire dept. functions in an effort to save money. The fire chief warned that once transport rights are lost, they are almost impossible to reacquire.


It occurred to me after the meeting that although revising our cell ordinance and hiring a new fire chief seem like independent issues, they are not. One of our local doctors wrote council members to remind us that in an emergency like a stroke or a heart attack, every minute counts. He stressed that poor cell phone coverage was a public safely issue if it causes delays in emergency responders reaching victims.

Maintaining our first rate emergency responders in Albany does not do much good if residents cannot contact them on their cell phones. This has been a problem in the past. Improving cell phone coverage and maintaining our emergency response capability go hand in hand.