Imagine a Loma Prieta-grade earthquake in Los Altos Hills: The power is out, fires blaze, cellphone signals are jammed and emergency officials are spread thin – too thin.
“The only people you’re going to have left for communications is your ham radio operators,” said Jim Abraham, city planning commissioner and Emergency Communications Committee co-chairman.
But not all Los Altos Hills residents assign such indispensability to amateur airwaves. Property owners concerned about antennas marring their homes’ views said as much during an Oct. 22 Planning Commission meeting about proposed amendments to the city municipal code section pertaining to antennas. The commission is responsible for reviewing a draft ordinance before submitting a recommendation to the city council, which ultimately decides the issue.
“I will ask a simple question: If you need medical assistance during an emergency in Los Altos Hills, are you going to rely on your neighbor’s ham radio to get you the help you need?” Robert Leland said at the meeting. “I don’t think we should be pushed into enacting amendments that are not relevant.”
Current regulations dictate that Los Altos Hills residents must undergo an administrative review process in order to erect antennas between 40 feet and 63 feet tall and through the Planning Commission to erect antennas taller than that. In both cases, the public must receive notice of the proceedings. The municipal code does not include antenna height limits.
In November 2014, the town’s Emergency Communications Committee recommended that the city council consider adopting regulations for amateur radio antennas. The council subsequently directed city staff and the Planning Commission to review the current codes and develop a recommendation on a policy or ordinance amendment. Working with staff, a subcommittee of planning commissioners Abraham and Vice Chairwoman Kavita Tankha reviewed federal and state regulations, spoke to neighboring cities about their policies and conducted site visits to antenna sites throughout Los Altos Hills.
They then drafted an ordinance the committee reviewed and unanimously endorsed. It establishes a height limit of 45 feet for fixed antennas and 75 feet for retractable antennas, the latter of which must be lowered when not in use. The ordinance allows for an administrative review process without public notice for antennas complying with zoning and building-code regulations.
Following public notice, the Planning Commission would review applications for antennas with a maximum retractable height of 45 feet or an overall height greater than 75 feet. The ordinance would also allow antennas and support structures within side or rear yards not adjacent to a street.
Opposition to changes
In an Oct. 13 Nextdoor.com post titled “75-Foot Amateur Radio Towers Planned for the Hills,” Jim Waschura urged fellow residents to attend the Oct. 22 Planning Commission meeting and voice their opinions about the proposed changes.
“This may sound reasonable, but in my opinion, the new effort is less about restricting the height of towers and more for the purpose of permitting towers of this height so as to protect a small group who wish to exercise their hobbies despite the obvious costs to their neighbors,” Waschura wrote.
But it’s not just hobbyists who attest to the power of radio. The town’s Emergency Communications Committee consists of hams who work with the Los Altos Hills County Fire District Commission to prepare for major disasters like earthquakes and flooding.
Over the years, the committee roster has shrunk to just 10 volunteers, partly due to the town’s “antenna haters” and their hostile attitude toward hams, Abraham said. To avoid opposition, fees and an arduous permitting process, local amateur radio enthusiasts have been known to erect antennas without authorization and then simply hope their neighbors don’t complain.
“Very seldom does anybody ask to put up an amateur radio in this town, because this town is well-known for being absolutely the most miserable place to try to put up an antenna,” Abraham said.
In Los Altos Hills, the cost to erect an antenna depends on its height and the amount of time city staff must dedicate to reviewing the application; antennas between 40 feet and 62 feet tall require a permit fee of $1,328 and a $3,264 deposit to cover the cost of the review. Antennas 63 feet and taller require a $1,808 permit fee and a $5,430 deposit. Unused deposit funds are returned to the applicant.
A dozen or so Los Altos Hills residents addressed the commission and presented varied points of view at the Oct. 22 meeting. Some suggested that the town waive fees so that ham enthusiasts are not discouraged from adhering to the application process. Others, including Waschura, insisted that the town has a responsibility to notify residents of pending antenna applications as well as to help protect the value of private property.
“In Los Altos Hills, people move here for the views,” Waschura said. “They don’t move to Mountain View or Atherton – like these other places that we’re compared to – for the views. We move here for the views, and property is valued and can change by a million dollars based on what those views might be.”
In light of the points made, Tankha said she would like additional time to consider the issue and to speak to City Attorney Steven Mattas before making a recommendation to the city council.
“I do think there are arguments on both sides, and if you can reconcile both these issues, that might be the best way to go,” she said.
As of the Town Crier’s press time Monday, the Planning Commission’s agenda for Thursday’s meeting did not include the antenna debate.