EL CERRITO -- The Planning Commission chose practicality over aesthetics Wednesday in approving the designs of four cell phone antennas in the hills.
The decision came after telecom company AT&T appealed the city's design review board decision last August rejecting the designs.
The board had ruled that the antennas, to be mounted on PG&E power poles, would "have a detrimental effect on the attractiveness of the community" because they would add more unsightly clutter to utility poles that were already cluttered with electrical, telephone and cable television wiring.
The review board had used two out of a list of 10 design criteria in the El Cerrito Municipal Code, normally used to evaluate buildings and landscaping, to back its decision.
AT&T appealed and the Planning Commission voted 4-1 to overrule the review board and approve the design review of the antennas to be placed on poles at 906 Balra Drive, 762 Colusa Ave., 7800 Eureka Ave. and 202 Seaview Drive after concluding that none of the 10 criteria apply to utility poles.
Commissioner Tim Pine endorsed the argument made by AT&T representatives that the new antenna system, known as DAS (distributed antenna system), is a significant upgrade in technology that will provide better cell phone service and more capacity. Demand for data downloads is expected to grow exponentially.
AT&T has applied to install similar DAS networks in hills neighborhoods in Oakland, Berkeley and Kensington.
"I don't know why the (design review board) used these design criteria," Pine said. "(These antennas) are an important part of the utility infrastructure, and we all benefit from that infrastructure."
While generally agreeing with Pine, planning commission Chairman Bill Kuhlman expressed concern about locking in a technology that might be obsolete in a short time.
"Antennas five years from now might be a fourth of the size they are now," Kuhlman said.
In response, company representatives agreed to end the design review approval in 10 years.
El Cerrito could then "ask AT&T to show us the best technology they have," that could be less visible and have less intrusion on views, said Margaret Kavanaugh-Lynch, El Cerrito's development services manager.
Commissioner Ken Hirano dissented on the final vote, calling the design evaluation "a subjective decision" and saying that "a clear majority" of residents he's talked to oppose installation of the antennas.
Seven of nine speakers at Wednesday's meeting urged the commission to reject AT&T's appeal.
The commission's decision can be appealed to the City Council, which would then have the final say.
The AT&T application process began in January of last year when the telecom giant submitted applications to the city for six antennas. AT&T withdrew one application for an antenna on a utility pole at 859 Gelston Place in May.
The planning commission approved conditional use permits for the five remaining antennas in June.
The commission's approval of an antenna at 851 Seaview Drive was appealed by residents to the City Council, which denied the appeal in August.
That appeal to the council placed the 851 Seaview application on a different design review track than the four under review Wednesday night.