The Walnut City Council Wednesday night green lighted three separate cell phone tower projects proponents say would improve service.
After a hearing that lasted more than three hours, the council separately voted 3-2 in the case of each of the three projects to deny the appeal and uphold the Planning Commission’s decision to approve the site plan and architectural review.
Mayor Mary Su and Councilman Eric Ching voted no on all three.
The project that sparked the appeal involved Verizon’s request to replace a 70.3-foot-high ball field light pole and cell phone tower in Creekside Park with a new 81-foot one.
Some residents near Creekside Park, including vocal opponent Terri Johnson, raised concerns about the safety of emissions coming from the cell tower, as well as the possible impacts on property values.
After several hearings during a 16-month period, as well as requiring Verizon to hire a third-party consultant to make sure the cell phone carrier’s contention that it needed the tower to improve coverage was true, the Planning Commission last month approved the project.
Johnson, who lives near Creekside Park, filed an appeal of that decision. She also filed appeals for two other projects the commission approved that same night. The fee for the appeals was $1,500. Those requests by AT&T include modification of existing telecommunications facilities at Walnut Ranch and Snow Creek parks.
Johnson provided the city with more than 350 signatures from residents who supported her appeal for each of the three projects. She also provided the signatures of 160 people who supported the petition before the appeal.
She called for a ban on cell phone towers in Walnut, adding that there are 98 within a three- mile radius of her home, including those in adjacent communities.
“When is it going to stop,” she said. “I do not want to see another tower built in the city of Walnut.”
Resident Pat Landry also called for a moratorium. She said that the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates cell phone towers, is looking at possibly making some changes due to growing concerns and awareness of the possible health effects. Landry requested the city institute a ban until the FCC completes it review.
The council members and attorneys representing the city said that as long as the cell phone carriers comply with federal regulations on emissions, Walnut’s hands were tied.
Attorneys Frank Angel and Jessica Chang, who represented Johnson in her appeal, argued that the Creekside Park cell phone tower project failed to comply with Walnut planning and zoning law, as well as with the California Environmental Quality Act.
Michael Flowers, special counsel for Walnut, said that the project qualified for a CEQA exemption. He added that denying the project could prompt a challenge from the applicant in federal court that there is a significant coverage gap and that the revamping of the towers is the least instrusive means of filling that gap.
In reference to the two AT&T projects, the attorneys argued that those projects constituted a major change, rather than a minor one and violated the city ordinance requiring cell phone towers to be “not effectively noticeable.”
“Anyone who is not blind can see this tower,” Angel said, adding that all three merited a CEQA review.
Chang argued that opportunities for co-location to cut down on the number of towers were not fully explored.
Both AT&T and Verizon had representatives on hand to counter those arguments.
Justin Davis, an AT&T representative, said that the cell phone carrier spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to locate towers and wouldn’t do so if they weren’t needed. The company wants to make a minor upgrade to existing towers to provide the more advanced wireless broadband that is missing now and improve existing voice and data coverage, he said.
“This is the equivalent of changing from an old VCR to a Blue Ray DVD player,” he said.
Verizon representatives said they had looked a co-locating at existing cell towers at San Lorenzo Church and at the intersection of Lemon Avenue and Amar Road without success.
Part of the 16-month delay in approving the project involved the city requiring Verizon to hire a third party consultant to test the company’s assertion that coverage was week in the area around Creekside Park.
The report’s findings, drafted by MobileNet Services, Inc., supported Verizon’s contention that the Creekside Park location would provide improved reception, compared to two other nearby locations.
“The other sites could aid coverage, but not as well as the park site because they are “heavily surrounded by terrain (hills) as compared to Location #1,” the report read.
The meeting got a little tense when Johnson said that city staff did not provide her with all of the documents she had requested. Johnson also accused Councilwoman Nancy Tragarz of telling her husband that the she supported the towers because of the revenue it brings the city.
The leases for the eight cell towers generate around $230,000 annually, city staff reported in February during a council study session.
Tragarz said she was offended by Johnson’s claim that staff did not provide her with the documents she asked for, adding that employees have spent countless hours filling Johnson’s public records request in the past nine months.
The councilwoman also called an accusation that Tragarz said anything to Johnson’s husband about revenue in relation to the cell phone tower projects “false and slanderous.”
“It’s really sad when politics get involved here. Our job as council members is to follow the law. Federal law is clear,” she said. “This should just be a 5-0 vote. And if it is anything less, clearly politics is being played here.”