Crowd-funded wireless code gets council support

The city of Langley may soon have a comprehensive ordinance capable of limiting wireless facilities.

The city of Langley could be one of the first municipalities in the state to have a comprehensive ordinance capable of limiting wireless facilities.

A first reading of the ordinance passed during this week’s city council meeting. A second reading will be scheduled for a future meeting in September.

Langley resident Mark Wahl raised $8,800 through a GoFundMe account to help fund the creation of the new wireless code, which was written by Andrew Campanelli, a New York attorney who specializes in litigation based on the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The city’s original code regarding wireless communications is only one page in length and includes basic provisions for cell towers, such as requirements for height, setbacks, color and landscaping. In the past, Wahl has cautioned the city council that such a simple code leaves the door wide open for wireless communications companies to take advantage.

The new code, in comparison, is 47 pages long and seeks to minimize the number of cell towers and other personal wireless service facilities and to mitigate “unnecessary adverse impacts” against the city’s residential areas and individual homes.

During the city council meeting this week, Campanelli fielded questions about the new code.

“Most local governments are misled to believe that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 somehow ties their hands, when the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. When Congress adopted the Telecommunications Act, it preserved the state and local governments’ general authority to regulate the placement of wireless facilities,” he said, adding that all local governments have to do is draft and adopt an ordinance to grasp that power.

Councilmember Craig Cyr asked about enforcement measures and the potential impact on an existing cell tower located on public right-of-way.

In response, Campanelli said that, in theory, radiation levels emanating from the facility could be periodically tested and if they exceed the limits laid out by the Federal Communications Commission, the city would be within its rights to fine the owner of the tower or even issue an order for it to be taken down.

Councilmember Thomas Gill, who described himself as a computer engineer by education, was the most outspoken during the meeting.

“I actually do have some issues with the wording of the actual ordinance, simply because it makes a lot of assumptions that there is little to no evidence about, including wireless effects on life expectancy and health. And some information about 5G that can be contained is dubious at best,” he said, adding that he found some of the language in the ordinance to be “demonizing.”

He also took issue with the city being able to enforce the ordinance on its own and suggested that the three municipalities in Island County should come together over one common ordinance and enforcement agency.

“There is no way on God’s green earth the city could ever enforce this law, this ordinance,” he said. “We do not have the personnel, we do not have the people, we do not have the time resources.”

He and Cyr proposed some minor edits to the new code, such as replacing any reference to “5G” with “millimeter wave” and swapping out the mention of “his” for a gender-neutral “theirs” pronoun.

Others were content with the ordinance as is.

Councilmember Gail Fleming said she was impressed with the thoroughness of it.

“I’m on the same train,” Councilmember Harolynne Bobis said in agreement with Fleming. “I don’t know enough to ask specific questions, but I did read the ordinance and I thank Mr. Campanelli for his explanation why this ordinance is useful for the city because I didn’t get that from reading it.”

Councilmember Rhonda Salerno said she hoped that Langley’s ordinance could set an example for other cities.

Campanelli emphasized that a goal of the new code is to enable personal wireless service providers to provide adequate coverage without the addition of unnecessary and unattractive cell towers.

“This ordinance is not designed to ban anything,” he said. “It’s designed to vest you with the power to decide what gets built.”

In order to give the public more time to digest the new ordinance, Gill suggested a second reading of it take place at the council’s Sept. 6 meeting.

The motion passed 4-0, with Salerno abstaining from the vote because she wanted to pass the ordinance even sooner than September in case any applications came in.

An earlier version of this story did not include Councilmember Rhonda Salerno’s reason for abstaining from the final vote. It has since been updated with additional details.