Rules Tightened For Cell Towers After Months of Resident Complaints

An image of wires shown at the Malibu City Council meeting by a member of the public

They came with picture after picture of poles topped with black wires. They showed news reports of a fire that started at a Chula Vista high school after a light pole with an attached cellphone tower fell on some bleachers. They cited the Malibu mission statement, which famously seeks to preserve the city’s “rural character.” At the end of the Monday, April 12, Malibu City Council meeting, these impassioned residents got their wish: council passed an ordinance cracking down on “wireless communication facilities” in Malibu. Around midnight, after making key decisions about wireless facility insurance, distances from property lines and installation appeal processes, the council passed the ordinance unanimously, 5-0. The decision came amid complaints from members of the public that city staff had so far not been receptive to their suggestions and concerns.

The group of concerned residents—who claim to be a couple hundred strong, with 17 voicing their support on Monday—had long worried about wireless facilities sparking fires that could quickly engulf Malibu’s dry environment. Such facilities could include anything from small antennas to large mounted panels used for broadband cellular networks.

“The [telecommunications] industry will tell you how fire-safe the installations are, but they’re not perfect, and while the likelihood of risk is low, the potential consequences are catastrophic,” Planning Commissioner Kraig Hill said during public comment. 

Others worried about the ugliness of towers, poles and their masses of black wires lowering property values and creating eyesores within Malibu. 

“Aesthetics are an obvious concern. I’ve seen some of the really ugly, ugly pictures,” one resident, Scott Dittrich, said. “If somebody put one of these things with all the wires hanging down and the equipment in front of your house on a pole, that could actually really diminish your view and the property values.”

Liz Barris, who lives in Topanga, argued that the council should include in the ordinance special protections for residents with cancer, neurological illnesses or other conditions that might be exacerbated by the radiation given off by wireless facilities. Barris said she was calling into the meeting from her car where she now sleeps and works because she believes a transmitter near her apartment causes her to vomit. 

The push to curtail wireless facilities in Malibu started several months ago, Nichole McGinley, one of the locals who spearheaded the effort, said at the meeting. 

“We have almost got this,” she said. “Remember, we started this process with a handcrafted ordinance backed by over 200 residents. When that wasn’t accepted, we cooperated by trying to work within the staff language.” McGinley said the final iteration of the ordinance, which involved 500 pages of paperwork, was 95 percent complete. She, along with legal experts brought in to assist, offered just a few more tweaks. 

Tension between the group of concerned residents and staff came to a head during discussion of one of those tweaks. Residents accused city staff of opaqueness because one stipulation about application appeals seemed to be cut from the final proposed ordinance. Members of the public argued that they should be allowed to appeal installations to elected officials, instead of hearing officers with unknown backgrounds. 

“We have consistently asked to preserve our right to appeal an elected representative. The planning commission understood the importance of our request and included it in the recommendations,” resident Jenny Rusinko said, referring to earlier drafts of the ordinance that went through the Malibu Planning Commission. “For some mysterious reason, city staff defied the planning commission and omitted this recommendation, although they did acknowledge the recommendation in tonight’s meeting.” Rusinko further complained that the passage was cut without notation and suggested city staff could “not be trusted to act with transparency and clarity.”

Another resident, Lonnie Gordon, went further during her comments, calling city staff and Best Best & Krieger, the law firm employed by the city, “pro-telecom.” 

“Our city staff too often acts on its own and not for our benefit,” Council Member Bruce Silverstein—who often complains about what he sees as overreach by city employees—said. 

As for the question of appeals, city council decided that minor appeals would be heard by a hearing officer, but put in a provision that if the city council could not find one fast enough, appeals could also be heard by one council member and two planning commissioners designated by the council. More major appeals would still go to the planning commission and then to the city council if appealed once more.

Council and city staff worked late into the night ironing out other details, such as requiring telecom companies to fully insure their wireless facilities, not just against damage created if a tower were to fall, but also against pollution created by the towers. They also debated the correct distance between a wireless facility and the structures around it, as well as the correct distance between two towers. 

Multiple council members applauded the residents’ advocacy on the matter. 

“You guys made us smarter,” Council Member Steve Uhring said. “Thank you.”

Most items on the council’s April 12 agenda—including a proposal from Uhring to open certain closed session meetings to the public, a selection of an outside law firm to investigate allegations of corruption made by a former council member and a request from Mayor Pro Tem Paul Grisanti that Malibu send a letter declaring support for an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment within the water district—were not discussed, but will appear on the agenda of a future meeting.