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.”