Constructing a 112-foot cell tower in a residential area is no minor project (Opinion)
Governments, like people, can make mistakes. The government is not always right, and the mistake does not have to be intentional.
When officials err, as we all do at times, elected officials and their executives need to take corrective action as soon as possible. Most elected leaders want to do what is right, but they are not always provided with the right advice.
People who elect their representatives to the City Council want their elected leaders to look out for their health, safety and welfare and protect their property rights and not cave to powerful corporate interests on land use matters.
Approval of a 112-foot cell tower at 1360 Ski Run Boulevard and Needle Peak Road is bad policy, bad planning and based on bad advice.
Yes, we all want improved cell phone service. This can be achieved without degrading residential neighborhoods.
Here are a few thoughts based on my experience in local government.
1. General Plan — A 112-foot commercial cell tower in a residential area is not consistent with the characteristics of a residential area in the city’s adopted General Plan. It is not a residential use, and it detracts from the characteristics of a residential area. When Verizon Wireless first applied for a permit to build the tower, city staff should have told them to find another location.
2. Could you build one? — No one living in a residential area could build a 112-foot-tall structure whether commercial or residential. While the FCC does limit the city’s zoning authority to consider health effects, city council still can, and must, consider conventional aesthetic factors.
3. Environmentally exempt? – Nowhere in the city codes can I find a specific exemption from environmental review for a 112-foot tall cell tower, yet city staff allowed the commercial project to be processed without even an environmental assessment. An environmental assessment would have evaluated the possible impacts of the tower on the area and identified the long-term proposed use of the tower (i.e. what add-on cell facilities are expected in the future).
4. General Plan must be followed under state law — No cell tower ordinance was needed to do the basic work required on this project that planners are supposed to do. All that was needed was to follow the city’s adopted General Plan, the “constitution” for all development. Yes, I support a comprehensive cell tower ordinance now, but at Ski Run/Needle Peak the proverbial “horse is already out of the barn,” and the people who suffer are those people who live in the area, not the officials and staff who approved it.
5. Policy makers not given good advice — The planning commission and city council were not made aware of their options to further evaluate or deny the project when it was first brought to them.
6. Evidence not given fair consideration — The appeal of the planning commission’s decision to approve the tower was then mishandled at the council level with the abundance of evidence submitted by the appellant and hundreds of people were apparently overlooked by the city council majority. The council majority was placed in a box by their staff and told they could go no farther to provide relief. The recommendation was nonsense.
There were at least two alternative sites that would be appropriate and available to close the alleged gap in cell coverage that a tower would close. Verizon has not demonstrated that those sites are infeasible, only that this site is easier for them.
7. Appeal hearing missteps — The appeal hearing was conducted in a poor manner that violated the appellant’s due process rights and the city’s written appeal hearing protocols. (a) The appellant was not given equal time to rebut Verizon testimony; (b) city council improperly reduced the time limit at the hearing for public comment from 3 to 2 minutes, and no city executive cautioned the council that such action violated the printed city protocol for appeal hearings.
No vote was taken by council to reduce the time limit; (c) A council member prior to the hearing is reported by a witness to have voiced his opposition to the appeal in a lodging meeting a few days before the hearing and made it clear that he was not a neutral party required under City protocols; and (d) Not all written evidence allegedly opposing the appeal, I am told, was placed in the record and made available to all parties before or at the hearing. Council members were supposed to rely on the hearing and evidence in the record only to make their decision, not hidden pre-hearing messages or communications to them.
The City Council can and should fix this travesty of justice. They can do so if they agree to re-hear the matter, read the volumes of written and verbal testimony opposed to the 112-foot tower and the brief by a prominent New York cell facilities expert lawyer, get sound advice from their staff, and tell powerful and wealthy Verizon corporate people that they have to find a new location if they want to build a tower.
City officials should actively engage top leadership of other public entities to allow the construction of the tower on public lands (i.e. the USFS, CTC).
Verizon advocates stated that the Forest Service (with vast amount of land within the city limits) denied any more permits for cell facilities towers on their lands.
I have written to Vicki Christiansen, Chief of the USFS in Washington D.C., asking for her help to allow a tower on their lands, thus taking city government off the hot seat and providing well-deserved relief to the people who live in the neighborhood.
I communicated as well with Congressman McClintock’s Office for support in this regard. If federal, state, and local government officials want 112-foot towers built, put the towers on public lands, not in a residential area.
Finally, Verizon officials could be heroes if they agreed to find another site. But of course, they do not live here, and apparently, they do not care. It sure would be a great gesture if Verizon would help and I would then take back what I just said about them. Would any of you want a 112-foot tower near your house? I doubt it. I don’t.
David Jinkens is a South Lake Tahoe resident and former city manager.
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