Commission recommends changes to wireless ordinance

WATSONVILLE — The Watsonville Planning Commission gave its recommendation Tuesday to amend a city ordinance in response to federal law on wireless facilities.

The commission voted 4-1, with Commissioner Eduardo Montesino dissenting. The city council will now consider adopting the change at a future meeting.

Cellular providers have recently developed smaller wireless antennae systems that can be installed on such structures as street lights and buildings. These facilities help fill in gaps in network coverage, and are also less expensive for providers compared to installing cell towers, according to Senior Utilities Engineer Tom Sharp.

State and federal laws trump local government when it comes to approving these facilities, Sharp said, and jurisdictions cannot deny permits based on radio frequency emissions or adopt regulations that prevent personal wireless service.

Also, state law requires local governments to process permit applications within a “strict” time limit, according to Sharp.

Watsonville’s current policy requires a public hearing to take place for a proposed installation.

“The current ordinance doesn’t work very well because it requires public hearings and minimum notification requirements that exceed the state and federal time limits,” he said. “It prevents the public from having meaningful participation in the outcomes of permit decisions at public hearings.”

The proposed ordinance, subject to city council approval, would require permits to be processed through the Public Works and Utilities Department. A notice would be posted at the site that includes contact information of both the applicant and Public Works, but a public hearing would not take place.

Sharp said the policy would also include a list of preferred locations for such facilities, with street lights on public roads at the top of the list. Residential areas are last on the preferred list.

Montesino questioned how many of the facilities are proposed for the city, and suggested the ordinance include stronger language that requires multiple providers to “co-locate” their facilities.

But Community Development Director Suzi Merriam said the city is prohibited from doing so.

“We are working with very strict regulations,” she said. “We can give guidance and preferences, but we can’t outright ban anything or limit the number.”

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the commission recommended the city council allow marijuana cultivators and manufacturers to distribute their product themselves.

Currently, those businesses must hire a third party distributor to transport their product to other cannabis businesses and dispensaries outside of Watsonville.


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