Sonoma City Council OKs cell tower

Two controversial subjects came to a relatively quiet end Monday night when the Sonoma City Council voted to allow a cell phone tower after all – then followed up with a vote to amend the city’s ordinance on wine tasting rooms.

Monday’s vote on the tower capped a series of events beginning with AT&T’s request, made last year to the city, to build a tower on Sebastiani Winery property near the corner of Fourth Street East and Lovall Valley Road. The city’s Planning Commission approved the proposal after some negotiations, but incensed neighbors appealed that decision to the council, saying the 80-foot tower – disguised to look like an evergreen tree – was ugly, posed health risks and would hurt their property values.

That led to a 4-1 city council decision last December to uphold the neighbors’ appeal, effectively rejecting the tower. The telecom giant responded with a lawsuit against the city, filed in federal court in April, claiming that under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Sonoma has no legal standing to reject their proposal. The company says the tower is needed to patch a low-coverage area around Sonoma’s downtown, and that the 18-year-old federal law allows them to build it, regardless of the desires of local government.

“In general, the Telecommunications Act, we believe, warrants construction of these facilities when all the requirements are met,” a lawyer for AT&T told the Index-Tribune last month.

On Monday, city attorney Jeff Walter spoke bluntly about Sonoma’s limitations under the law, saying the city would probably spend “$50,000 to $70,000 on litigation” if it fought the lawsuit, with virtually no chance of winning.

Historically, Walter said, local municipalities controlled their own land – but in 1996, “Congress decided they are going to change that.”

Walter added, “The gorilla in the room is this piece of legislation adopted almost 20 years ago, whose express purpose was to promote and rapidly expand the use of cellular communications throughout the country.” That infrastructure, Walter said, was considered by Congress to be more important than the needs of local communities.

As a result, Walter said, whenever municipalities try to assert control over their own land, lawsuits by companies like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are always filed – and always prevail.

“It’s actually nothing personal. These cellular providers sue everybody. … They have armies of lawyers who are trained to do nothing but sue” local municipalities, Walter said.

When it was their turn to speak, residents were split on whether the council should settle with AT&T. Paula Szoka, of West Spain Street, advised settling, adding that she wouldn’t mind better cell phone reception.

“Don’t waste money on fighting this lawsuit,” she said. “There are many of us who are near the Plaza who are restricted in our ability to communicate with the outside world.”

Erin McTaggart strongly disagreed, decrying the “bullying” by AT&T and telling council members she applauded their previous decision to reject the tower.

“Please don’t sell yourselves out,” she urged them.

Alice May, of Lovall Valley Road, said her family lives about 135 feet from the proposed tower, “So this is very personal to me.”

“It’s one of the most beautiful areas in town,” she said, adding, “I’m asking you to go to bat for me. This is my only investment, my biggest investment, my home. And I’m fighting for my home right now.”

Council members – all of whom, except for Mayor Tom Rouse, rejected the tower in December – expressed helplessness in the face of federal law, with most saying they saw no choice but to settle with AT&T and approve the tower.

“I was the lone ‘non’ vote last time around,” noted Rouse, who went on to say that cell phone coverage was poor in parts of Sonoma and needed improvement. Regardless of one’s opinion on the tower, “We have our hands tied” due to federal law, he concluded.

Councilmember Laurie Gallian wondered what would come of fighting the lawsuit, losing city money and winding up “back at square one.”

“This does not look like a win situation at all,” she said. “This does not even look like a chance of a win. … This isn’t moral, this is fiscal.”

Councilmember Ken Brown also said he supported settling with AT&T, leaving Councilmember David Cook to point out that the votes were there to allow the tower regardless of his position.

“Where does it stop?” Cook asked, raising the specter of more cell phone towers being forced into town due to federal law. “I believe in local control … which here, it sounds like we just don’t have.” Cook said he would vote against the tower.

The final vote on two motions – one to settle with AT&T, and one to allow the tower – was 3-1, with Councilmember Steve Barbose absent as he was traveling abroad.

Immediately afterward, council members took up another formerly controversial topic that, by Monday night, seemed to have played itself out: proposed changes to rules regulating the city’s wine tasting rooms.

More specifically, the council on Monday was taking a final look at newly established definitions and standards for wine tasting facilities, as well as for wine bars and taprooms. There was little public comment prior to the unanimous vote, and council members mostly congratulated staff, the Planning Commission and the public for working together to find acceptable compromises on the sensitive issue.

“I will be supporting this, because I think that it shows that the system does work,” said Cook, adding, “In the end, we did come together.”

“This was a really great study for how you actually make a change in the community,” agreed Gallian.

Under the new provisions, hammered out over a year of often-heated public debate and discussion, incoming tasting rooms and wine bars around the Plaza – those not already “grandfathered in” – must follow certain rules set into law on Monday. They include:

• General hours of operation are limited to between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m.

• Hours for invitation-only “wine functions” (such as wine club events) are limited to between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Such functions can only be held indoors and cannot occur more than twice a week and 26 times per year.

• Outdoor seating for a tasting room or bar that adjoins a residential property must obtain a use permit.

• Tasting rooms (operating under a “Type 2” permit) will continue to be a “permitted use” in Sonoma’s commercially zoned areas, and a “conditionally permitted use” in areas zoned for mixed use.

• Wine bars and taprooms (operating under a “Type 42” permit) will always require a use permit review.

Danny Faye, of Envolve Winery, a frequent spokesman for Plaza winemakers, said he supported these “compromises that the tasting rooms have made to the public’s issues.”

By contrast, Larry Barnett, a former council member who had been the main proponent of stricter rules governing tasting rooms – above all, a cap on the total number of tasting rooms allowed on the Plaza – wrote in March that a council majority had “ignored the lack of limitations on the size of portions (called ‘pours’) offered at ‘Type 2’ wine tasting businesses. Nor did they require any documentation from such locations that their employees have been trained about serving alcohol and controlling its consumption.”

Barnett believed that due to these and other oversights, the provisions ratified Monday were toothless.