A new set of guidelines gives the City of Coquitlam the right to mandate where cellphone companies put towers and how they look, though the municipality still remains powerless in the approval process.

That was the overriding message coming out of what was, at times, a confusing debate Monday around council’s role in approving cellphone towers and other communications infrastructure in the city.

Monday’s discussion ended with the city implementing a “wireless communications facilities consultation protocol,” which delineates what the city can control, and what Industry Canada controls.

“We must recognize as a community that the – cell tower is a reality in our community,” Mayor Richard Stewart said at the council meeting.

“Let’s try to find ways to mitigate the risks associated with it and mitigate the concerns associated with it. But we have no authority in this instance to do anything other than make requests and to consult, I suspect.”

Opposed only by Coun. Lou Sekora, the protocol gives the city some say in where the towers can be located, how they look and other design features, though the approval process ultimately remains with the federal authority.

The document also goes on to outline the fact that a public consultation process must be undertaken when a new tower higher than 15 metres (or 49.3 feet) is planned for an area. Any towers under that height, however, are not subject to the same process.

“What we’re asking the industry to do is to work with us [and] to let us know their plans,” said Jim McIntyre, the city’s manager of planning and development.

“We would then take them through a process where we would review it and provide comments back. That’s really all the authority we have.”

A staff report notes that about 70 cell tower locations are currently spread throughout the city. Some of those structures are found on freestanding lattice towers and are highly visible, while others are on rooftops, electrical transmission towers or other locations and structures where they are less noticeable.

And that’s how the city wants to keep it.

According to Monday’s protocol, city staff are recommending that towers more than 15 metres high be located in non-residential and non-school locations. Instead, the city says, that infrastructure should be placed in industrial areas. The protocol also discourages towers from being built “on prominent natural and cultural features, environmentally sensitive areas or areas with historically significant buildings.”

The city will also maintain a map on its website noting the location of all local cell towers, while also providing information from Health Canada and Industry Canada around public health and safety issues. The city will also begin charging $500 for all cell tower applications.

“[The protocol] does, what is to me, the most important thing – it makes it possible for those who are concerned about the possible effects of cellphone and cell tower radiation to know where they are and make their decisions accordingly,” said Coun. Neal Nicholson.

The lone opponent to Monday’s move, Sekora said he was “really, really concerned” over the proposed strategy and prefers that the city conduct a public hearing any time a cellphone tower is in the planning stages.

“We’re going down a dangerous path of having towers next to the neighbours that don’t want it [and] next to a neighbourhood where people don’t like it,” said Sekora, who also suggested cellphone towers have negative health effects on those living close to them.

However, Vancouver Coastal Health’s chief medical officer issued a statement last year around health risks associated with cellphone towers, stating, “radiation from cellular base stations is far too low to cause adverse health effects in the community.”

According to statistics from the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, half of all phones in Canada are now wireless. Those same statistics suggest there were 25 million cellphone users nationwide last year, and that number is expected to jump to 30 million by 2014. The city’s workforce alone has 400 cellphone subscribers, including bylaw officers, building inspectors, firefighters and the RCMP.

“If you don’t want to live in a community that has cellphone signals, you’ll have to move to a community that doesn’t have cellphones – that’s the reality of life in today’s world,” Stewart said in an interview Tuesday.

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