ALBANY -- The Albany City Council on Tuesday voted to deny an appeal of a Planning and Zoning Commission decision approving the installation of cell phone antennas on a building at 1035 San Pablo Ave. The approval means that AT&T can install nine antennas on the building, culminating a process that has taken nearly five years.

AT&T currently has no cell phone towers in Albany. The antennas would be "co-located" on the building with existing antennas used by Sprint. The 4-1 vote, with Councilwoman Marge Atkinson dissenting, denied an appeal filed by Albany resident Heike Abeck, who lives near the proposed site.

"I'm very disappointed in the council," Abeck said.

About 30 minutes of public comment preceded the vote, with a majority of those speaking opposed to the antennas.

The appeal raised five points: that as a "legal, nonconforming building" (meaning that it exceeds height limits established after it was built) used for commercial purposes, the site may only be modified in the course of maintenance; that alternative sites were not fully explored; that the antennas won't be screened, per Albany ordinance; that the equipment supporting the antennas will not be set back 50 feet from nearby residences per city ordinance; and that the city's requirements for radio frequency testing every two years have not been satisfied.

A report presented by city planner Anne Hersch refuted those points. Most discussion focused on the question of a nonconforming commercial building, which was the basis for rejecting a previous plan by AT&T that suggested housing the supporting equipment in a rooftop penthouse. However, that plan was rejected because it would have increased the rooftop coverage in violation of the city ordinance.

AT&T's new plan would remove that penthouse and put the equipment inside the building, removing the question of the building becoming more noncompliant. The report also said that such a strict interpretation would prevent commercial landlords from making normal modifications to a building to attract and retain tenants.

Albany Community Development Director Jeff Bond was asked by Councilman Peter Maass if the city denies planning applications to commercial buildings for changes other than maintenance. Bond replied that there are so few nonconforming commercial buildings in the city that it was difficult to say. Hypothetically, Bond suggested that if the Albany theater wanted to install a new sign to modernize its look, the Planning Department would attempt to approve such an application.

Abeck said she felt the council didn't give enough consideration to whether the project meets the code.

"I think there is a case there and I think there is a grounds for the case and I think they didn't consider the arguments of why they didn't meet the code," she said.

Discussion also centered on whether AT&T has sufficiently explored other sites. AT&T said it has, presenting a report on 10 possible sites in Albany and rejecting the other nine for either being unable to satisfy coverage needs, landlords not being interested in renting to AT&T, or both.

Abeck and her supporters maintain that a site owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would work and that the USDA would be willing to rent.

There was much debate about a letter sent to the City Council last year by the USDA regarding whether it would be willing to rent to AT&T. That letter, according to Barnes, was in response to then-Councilman Robert Lieber writing a letter inquiring whether the agency would be willing to rent to AT&T. According to Abeck and other opponents of the project, the letter indicates the USDA would be willing to negotiate. According to supporters of the project, it is much less clear.

AT&T consultant Valerie Tallerico told the council the company is willing to install the antennas with or without a rooftop screen. The Planning and Zoning Commission decided the screen would have a larger visual impact than the antennas themselves.

The final question was regarding a city ordinance requiring radio frequency testing every two years. The city has never actually tested the frequencies, in large part because it doesn't have the money to do so, according to Hersch. Bond also said that because of the amount of staff time devoted to wireless applications that there was no time to set up testing. Council members noted that, as the ordinance is written, the onus is on the city to conduct the testing, not the applicant.

Councilwoman Joanne Wile asked Tallerico if AT&T would be willing to do the testing within two years as a condition of approval and Tallerico said, "Yes." Wile then moved to include testing as part of the ordinance rejecting the appeal.

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