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.

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