On June 22, 2021, the Town announced it had issued a development permit two months earlier to TELUS to install a 45 metre tall communications antenna tower on Town-owned property at 2045 Island Hwy near the intersection with Village Way. Under the federal Radiocommunication Act, all antenna systems used for wireless transmission, including connectivity for mobile phones, must be licensed by Industry Canada (currently called Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada or ISED for short).
That gives the appearance of a government regulatory function, but Industry Canada is NOT a disinterested party. The ISED department’s mandate is to industrialize Canada, enabling industrial corporations to grow their sales and profits both domestically and internationally. As such, any suggestion that ISED priorizes protection of public and environmental health from adverse effects of industrial products and services is misguided.
So we should not be surprised to find that ISED’s prescribed process for approving wireless telecommunications antennae pays little heed to public concerns.
The public’s last and best bulwark against industry imposing their will on our communities without a hearing is municipal government. In two out of three recent decisions regarding applications for installation of telecommunications equipment in our region, local governments have provided their citizens with opportunities to express their views. Qualicum Beach Council is the exception in denying QB residents the right to make their views known before decisions are made that could directly affect them.
This is the story of how TELUS’ proxy SitePath Consulting has, with the assistance of Town Council and a complicit federal “regulatory” agency, evaded public input in an unrelenting quest to erect a cell tower at that location. It is also a testimony to other area governing bodies who have provided exemplary leadership in providing their constituents with the opportunity to voice their concerns, the Regional District of Nanaimo and School District 69. Settle in, this isn’t a short read, but it is instructive.
Was co-location of the TELUS tower with an existing tower seriously considered?
ISED does appear to want to keep the number of antennae in a community to a minimum by encouraging competing carriers to share use of each tower. According to the ISED protocol known as CPC-2-0-03, which we will simply refer to as the ISED protocol, “a proponent is not normally expected to build a new antenna-supporting structure where it is feasible to locate an antenna on an existing structure, unless a new structure is preferred by the land-use authority (e.g. the Town of Qualicum Beach). Owners and operators of existing antenna systems are to respond to a request to share in a timely fashion and to negotiate in good faith to facilitate sharing where feasible.” In practice, the antenna located beside the Town’s Fire Hall is an example of a tower that enables shared use.
In 2013, Council had instructed staff “to investigate better cell reception to the Eaglecrest and Chartwell areas of Qualicum Beach.” At a Public Safety Committee meeting in early 2014, John Marsh reported that “staff have met with Rogers at the Village Way reservoir site and Rogers has conveyed optimism that this area would work well to improve cell coverage for Qualicum Beach.” They were right — Rogers then built and currently operates a tower at that location (712 Village Way) which, by all reports, quite satisfactorily serves their customers in every corner of Eaglecrest and Chartwell.
However, in August 2020, Brian Gregg of SitePath Consulting, the proxy agent assigned by TELUS to secure Town concurrence for the TELUS proposal to install a new tower about a kilometre from the Rogers tower, claimed that “TELUS has reviewed all existing structures within the search area and has confirmed that there are no existing antenna-support structures of a suitable height or location that would provide dependable network improvements in the community.” Given the evidence to the contrary (satisfactory service by Rogers to customers using their Village Way antennae), it is surprising that Gregg’s statement seems to have gone unchallenged by Town staff and Council.
The requirement for “public consultation”
As part of the process to acquire a license to install a wireless transmission tower, ISED does require that evidence of “public consultation” be provided, preferably with a statement of concurrence from the land-use authority where the tower will be installed, in this case the Town of Qualicum Beach. A municipality may create and apply its own public consultation process applicable to antenna siting.
Some do have their own consultation process (like the Regional District of Nanaimo for applications in the Electoral Areas), some don’t (like Qualicum Beach which opted instead to accept ISED’s Default Public Consultation Process). This default process requires that TELUS provide written notification to the public of the proposed antenna system installation or modification, engage the public in order to address relevant questions, comments and concerns regarding the proposal, and provide an opportunity to the public, and the Town, to formally respond in writing to the proponent regarding measures taken to address reasonable and relevant concerns.
Sounds comprehensive. However, at the end of the day, there is no obligation whatsoever on TELUS to secure the informed consent of the public, even within a specified proximity of the proposed tower, nor even address in a meaningful way any of the concerns raised during the process. At a minimum, they simply need to go through the motions of listening, address only “reasonable and relevant concerns” (and TELUS and ISED get to decide what is or isn’t reasonable or relevant), to get to the finish line. As long as ISED is satisfied that each step of the prescribed public consultation process was followed, a licence can be issued.
Concerns about possible cumulative, long term adverse health impacts are not deemed “reasonable and relevant” and are dismissed out-of-hand by both TELUS and ISED, leaving only the Town Council and Administration as the potential facilitators of a community discussion of these concerns. In this case, the Town arbitrarily decided not to listen to or discuss personal health or other environmental risks. As we explain later in this article, other communities in our District took a quite different approach.
Deficiencies in the recent TELUS public consultation process in QB
As a minimum ISED requirement, “proponents must provide a notification package… to the local public (including nearby residences, community gathering areas, public institutions, schools, etc.), neighbouring land-use authorities, businesses, and property owners, etc.”
TELUS had started the process with an intended siting of their new tower on the property of the Christian Fellowship Centre on Village Way.
Given the physics of pulsed radio-frequency (RF) energy, it is reasonable to expect that particular attention would be paid to listening to the concerns of the people who live, work, learn, play or worship in the immediate proximity of the proposed antenna tower. In his submission to the Town, included with the Town staff report appended to the August 19, 2020 Town Council meeting, SitePath’s Brian Gregg re-stated the neighbourhood notification requirement as “Notify any property owners within three times the proposed tower height.”
Why did Mr. Gregg reduce the target audience to only property owners, who may not ever even reside there? Common sense would suggest that maybe the regular occupants of the church itself, such as the children attending day care there on a daily basis, might have some interest in the proposed tower? Were the parents or guardians of each of these children notified? Were tenants of rented houses notified, or just the absentee property owner landlord?
Which brings us to a more fundamental question: What exactly is the purpose of these location-proximity notifications, which are in addition to the required newspaper announcements to the broader public? And what exactly is special about the small zone (150 metre radius) in the immediate vicinity of the proposed tower? Why not 1,000 metres? Why not zero metres? Is there some unidentified risk of being in the vicinity of a wireless communications antenna tower that the public is unaware of? Having the tower fall over is one risk, but that would suggest a notification radius of only 50 metres would then be required for the TELUS tower proposed at the Eaglecrest location.
We looked for evidence that the concerns expressed by these special inside-the-zone notification recipients were given special attention — they were not, according to Gregg’s consultation summary submitted to the Town. He claims that 180 community members submitted comments, with no indication of how many of these commenters were inside vs. outside the notification zone.
Many proximate residents claim they did not even receive their notification
In his report, Gregg does not specify how these folks were notified. We expect he used regular (non-registered) mail rather than courier-plus-signature, which one would consider appropriate if the notification process were to be taken seriously. It is just dumb not to have proof of delivery in case you are challenged. And he was definitely challenged.
We’re not talking hundreds of people here. The original list of those to be notified was 27, but that was for the Christian Fellowship Centre location that became a “failed candidate”. Two options on Town-owned land eventually became candidates, one of which was closer to homes in Eaglecrest, and the notification list was expanded by 20, with contact information presumably supplied by the Town for these 47 residences. Of this small number of nearby folks, ten have declared in writing that they were not notified.
Local residents denied an opportunity to appear before Town Council
As recently reported in Second Opinion QB, a Delegation led by Carol and Fred Dowe was inappropriately denied an opportunity to appear before Council at its August 19, 2020 Council meeting.
As Councillor Adam Walker pointed out at the meeting, the TELUS application had not been formally in front of Council until the August 19, 2020 meeting. Since Delegations are expected to address issues “before Council”, this would have been the first time one or more Delegations could have been permitted to appear with concerns about the TELUS proposal.
On the agenda was a staff recommendation “that Council direct staff to invite members of the public to provide written feedback on the Land Use Concurrence request .. with a submission deadline of September 30, 2020,” some six weeks later. This staff recommendation seemed to imply that, if and only if approved by Council, no Delegations would be allowed to present to Council or to the Committee of the Whole. As such, staff appeared to signal that their minds were already made up. But accepting written submissions for six weeks would have at least allowed residents to get their comments on the record.
However, an abrupt motion (with no customary Notice of Motion) by Councillor Filmer, seconded by Councillor Harrison, torpedoed ANY further public input by skipping to the finish line, providing Council’s concurrence and choosing the 845 Village Way location option. Game over. Turn out the lights. It was discouraging to watch, to say the least. Readers can judge for themselves. The short discussion begins at the 56:45 mark of the recording available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=te8KXxttHSM.
For the record, Mayor Wiese cast the deciding vote to quash any further input, with Councillors Walker and Westbroek voting against the apparently pre-orchestrated Filmer/Harrison motion. This despite Councillor Westbroek’s reminder to his fellow Councillors of their prior promise that “there would be an opportunity for the public to address Council directly”. Promise made; promise not kept.
[In case readers are confused about the choice of site, yes Town Council and staff were hasty and later changed their minds and chose the alternate location at 2075 Island Hwy.]
Council adds insult to injury
A year later, Town staff begrudgingly, after being cited by the provincial Ombudsperson for not following their own policy when they denied Delegation(s) at the August 19, 2020 meeting, did extend an opportunity to a Delegation led by Carol and Fred Dowe to appear before Council at their September 8, 2021 meeting. We recommend readers watch the reception given by Council to the Delegation, starting at the 23:45 mark of the meeting recording available here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48a9S96Elx0.
Delegations can request an additional five minutes in addition to the standard five minutes allowed, a courtesy commonly extended. But Council courtesy was not on display on this day. Councillor Skipsey moved to give them the ten minutes, seconded by Westbroek. But Wiese, Filmer, and Harrison voted down the request.
Little was learned from the truncated presentation by Dr. Stephen Faulkner other than that Councillor Harrison had apparently been conducting a behind-the-scenes war of words with Dr. Faulkner and others which spilled over into the Delegation exchange before Council.
Councillor Westbroek (obliged by protocol to make his statement in the form of a rhetorical question) said: “I just would like to ask Carol and Fred and Dr. Faulkner whether they realize that the responses that Councillor Harrison has written to a number of people providing input on this issue only speaks for himself. He doesn’t speak for me — I just want to point that out.”
A comparison with other cell tower requests in the District
In contrast, consider the handling of an application by Rogers to install a similar cell tower, at 2540 Alberni Highway, Coombs in RDN Electoral Area F, that came before the RDN Board of Directors on May 28, 2019. The meeting video is no longer available, but both the Agenda package, including staff report, and the Minutes are available. The initial Delegation were RDN planners and Brian Gregg — yes, the same proxy used by TELUS (SitePath), followed by SIX additional Delegations, including Dr. Stephen Faulkner.
When it came time to vote on whether to issue a notice of Concurrence to ISED as requested by Rogers and as recommended by RDN staff, a 4-3 majority of the eligible Electoral Area Directors, including the Area F Director herself, defeated the motion.
In researching this Coombs application and decision, we uncovered a couple of interesting things. As mentioned earlier, the RDN has created and applies its own protocol for public consultation (RDN Board Policy B1.23). It prescribed a notification radius of 631 metres, ten times the proposed tower’s height, not three times the tower height as in the ISED default protocol used by the Town of Qualicum Beach. In the Coombs application, the nearest residence was 186 metres from the proposed tower location, compared to roughly 110 metres to the closest residence in the QB siting.
The RDN policy is also alive to risk management of radio-frequency radiation from the antenna tower. When reviewing an antenna siting application with the proponent, RDN staff are “to identify any potential Sensitive Community Locations”, defined in the policy to include “institutions and services, such as schools, daycares, recreation facilities, public parks, ..”
RDN planning staff reported that “concerns raised by the public regarding the proposed telecommunications tower were mostly related to its proximity to residents, potential health and environmental impacts on wildlife in the area and decrease in property values.”
In Qualicum Bay, a compromise
More recently, a proposal for a TELUS tower to be installed on a large private industrial lot in Qualicum Bay came before the RDN Board on June 22, 2021. Four delegations were heard. The eligible RDN Electoral Area Directors then voted unanimously to NOT give TELUS their desired concurrence. It appears that this move was necessitated by resistance from the TELUS agent — you guessed it, Brian Gregg from SitePath — to move the tower location from the northwest corner of the lot to the southeast corner, approximately 200 metres further away from several residences, albeit closer to the neighbouring Qualicum First Nation.
Three weeks later the application was back before the Board, with a modified resolution to give concurrence subject to locating the tower “as close as is practical to the south and west property boundaries” of the lot. The resolution passed, all transacted on Director Stuart McLean’s verbal assurance that the community was satisfied, even though TELUS itself had not submitted any change in plans.
Not everyone in a position of authority in our District turns a blind eye
Parents and students should be pleased to see that Carol and Fred Dowe, with guest presenter Frank Clegg, former President of Microsoft Canada and current CEO of Canadians for Safe Technology (C4ST), were given an attentive reception at the School District 69 (Qualicum) Board Meeting on September 28, 2021. Mr. Clegg has kindly provided this copy of the slides he used, a handy compendium of issues, research findings and recommendations related to reducing exposure to RF radiation, particularly but not exclusively related to children.
Clegg, with 40 years experience in the tech industry including senior positions with Microsoft, is a strong proponent of the Precautionary Principle – “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage to the environment or to human health, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as an excuse for postponing the adoption of measures to prevent such environmental and health degradation.” In June 2021, Mr. Clegg sent this letter to Town Council and senior Administration
Leadership demonstrated by School District 69
After receiving the information and recommendations from the Dowes and Mr. Clegg at their September meeting, the SD 69 Board assigned the issue for consideration within the scope of the Board’s Climate Action Task Force (CATForce), co-chaired by Trustees Julie Austin and Barry Kurland.
A week later, at its October 6, 2021 meeting, the CATForce team discussed the subject, gaining additional knowledge from invited guest Frank Clegg. The Task Force then brought forward three recommendations to the SD 69 Board meeting on October 26, 2021:
- that the cell tower discussion be moved to the School District Health & Safety Committee;
- that discussion of dead zones and wired technology be moved to the District’s Education Technology Committee; and,
- that the concept of a pilot project for SD 69 for a Wi-Fi free school be considered and discussed at the Education Committee of the Whole.
Recognizing the need for more information, the Board accepted Superintendent Peter Jory’s offer to have staff develop a briefing note to assist the Board with any future specific commitments.
Learn – understand – act. The time-tested principles of leadership, well-demonstrated by the Administration and Board of SD 69. Unfortunately, on this issue, the same cannot be said for QB Town Council and staff.