In the kind of political showdown during which observers expect to see someone blink, the Sonoma City Council entertained an AT&T request to reconsider its decision denying an 80-foot, faux-redwood, cellphone tower at the Sebastiani Winery and, despite a thinly-veiled threat of litigation, the council refused to back down.
Whether or not AT&T decides to sue remains to be seen.
In an eight-page letter to the council, AT&T attorney John di Bene outlined four ways the council had violated the 1996 Telecommunications Act in denying the telecom giant a tower permit on the winery property along Lovall Valley Road.
Citing the “specific statutory restrictions relevant” to the vote in question, di Bene stated the Telecommunications Act requires that:
• The local government’s decision must not “prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services.”
• The local government may not regulate the placement, construction or modification of wireless telecommunications facilities on the basis of environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent such facilities comply with the FCC’s regulations concerning such emissions.
• Any local government decision to deny a siting request must be in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record.
• The local government may not unreasonably discriminate among providers of functionally equivalent services.
In his letter, di Bene flatly stated the Dec. 16 council decision to deny AT&T a permit for the Sebastiani site “violates each of these requirements.”
Four AT&T representatives were among the 15 speakers addressing the council on the issue, 10 of whom expressed passionate opposition to the tower and to reconsideration of the utility’s application.
Among AT&T’s arguments in support of reconsideration was the fact that the tower proposal had been approved by a unanimous vote of seven Planning Commission members, after agreeing to modify the original plan by lowering the height by 15 feet.
More compelling for the utility’s case, according to di Bene’s arguments, is the utility’s determination that there is a significant coverage gap in downtown Sonoma, particularly for indoor reception, and that AT&T has a legal right and obligation to close that gap by the least intrusive means.
Defining “least intrusive means” is done, stated di Bene’s letter, by reference to the city’s own development code.
He said, working closely with city staff, AT&T said it designed a facility that meets the city’s “exacting standards,” is as close as possible to the intended service area and is not located in either a residential zone or a public park. Furthermore, di Bene, argued, the design of the “stealth” redwood tree, blends in with the surrounding area.
AT&T spokesman Jason Osborne told the council that his company had explored 20 alternative sites to the Sebastiani location, but it remained by far the best.
And Ray Mathur, as license professional electrical engineer with Hammett and Edison, a Sonoma-based engineering firm hired by AT&T, said the proposed tower complies with FCC standards and that radio frequency emissions would be 80 times lower than FCC standards allow at ground level.
Finally, AT&T attorney Valerie Baumer informed the council, “We believe we have the opportunity to provide you with additional information …” Not allowing for a reconsideration of its denial, Baumer added, would create a situation in which “the council would have its own legal hurdle to get over, its own standards to meet.”
That statement sent a buzz through the council chambers and a later rebuke from council member Steve Barbose. But terms of the Telecommunications Act notwithstanding, the mood of the audience was almost united against AT&T’s tower.
One local resident, Carol Lockwood, rose to defend the tower, explaining that she works at home for a Burlingame company and relies on her email, laptop and iPhone to do her job. “More and more people are disconnecting from land lines,” she said. “Many people go to Starbucks for better reception. Please reconsider the vote …”
But Lizzy Stuckey, an AT&T customer living within sight of the proposed tower location, insisted reception is not a problem and recounted how she called AT&T, posing as a prospective customer, and was told by a sales person, “We have 10 great towers, coverage is great, except for a pocket in Boyes Hot Springs,” and that there were “no dead zones in the area.”
And Jennifer Palladini, one of the plaintiffs who appealed the Planning Commission approval, told the council that the nearby bike path “is used by hundreds of people, thousands. People picnic within 100 feet of the tower. Is this how we want to say welcome to Sonoma?”
And Cameron Stuckey, just appointed to Sonoma’s Community Services and Environment Commission, pointedly asked the council members, “Would you want it in your front yard?”
During public comments, council member Barbose interrupted the flow of testimony to ask City Attorney Jeff Walter if the City Council, which was purportedly considering only the question of whether or not to agendize reconsideration at another meeting, had any obligation to receive further evidence or testimony from AT&T.
Walter shook his head and said, “No.”
With public comments concluded, Barbose returned to his theme.
“When we were last here, AT&T had the burden of proof to show they had a service gap,” he said. “Whatever evidence they, for whatever reason, chose not to present then, is not our problem.”
Barbose said he would oppose reconsideration, and councilmembers Cook, Brown and Gallian agreed.
“This town has a very special sense of place,” Barbose concluded. “AT&T is welcome here, but not in that location … Don’t come here and threaten us.”