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Showdown on Lovall Valley Road

RECENTLY, THE CITY COUNCIL turned down an appeal by AT&T to allow it to build an 80-foot cellphone tower near the Sebastiani Winery. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

RECENTLY, THE CITY COUNCIL turned down an appeal by AT&T to allow it to build an 80-foot cellphone tower near the Sebastiani Winery. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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If Quentin Tarantino had written the script, the showdown would have taken place along a straight, flat, sunbaked road at high noon, vineyards on one side, a billboard depicting an 80-foot, simulated redwood tree on the other.

The action would take place on the street, with opposing forces facing off, protected by powerful attorneys armed with high caliber writs.

At one end, the Telecom Troopers would wave reams of discovery documents and federal Prohibition Preemptions while their field commander orders the other side to cease and desist their violation of federal law and their obstruction of broadband access.

At the other end, the Municipal Marshals would stand their ground, waving citizen petitions, architect opinions and proclamations of Local Control.

Residents watching from the sidelines, or at home on TV, would prepare themselves for the legal bloodbath certain to follow. Surely the superior forces of the Telecom Troops, backed by legions of lawyers, would prevail.

But then, to almost everyone’s surprise, four marshals from the municipality raise their rhetorical shields, bat aside insinuations of “legal hurdles” and flatly proclaim, “Don’t threaten us! Take your tower and shove it,” or words to that effect.

It’s probably a good thing Tarantino did not orchestrate Wednesday night’s City Council showdown with the forces of AT&T. Instead of shots fired in every direction and blood spatter on every wall, there was only an eight-page, lethal-sounding letter and an exchange of legal and emotional rhetoric.

And when the word-smoke had cleared, and after 11 citizens and four AT&T spokespersons had advanced to the podium, the unbowed City Council reaffirmed the decision it first made on Dec. 16 and told the telecom giant it would not permit the proposed faux redwood tree to be erected alongside Lovall Valley Road on the grounds of Sebastiani Winery.

AT&T had in its holster the provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, defining what cities can and cannot do when deciding to deny cellphone towers.

One thing a city may not do is take into consideration the hypothetical medical risks posed by microwave radiation so long as the radiation emitted by a given tower does not exceed limits set by FCC regulations.

Another thing a city can’t do is “prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services.”

Which means that, in order for a city to be in violation of federal law by opposing a cell tower placement, the affected phone company must prove it has a significant gap in service coverage and that the tower in question closes that gap by the least intrusive means.

The gap in coverage is under dispute, but if you have an AT&T cellphone you know there are dead zones all over Sonoma Valley, including indoors downtown.

Be that as it may, in the eyes of the City Council, AT&T did not prove it has no viable alternatives to the Sebastiani site. The council therefore refused to reconsider its earlier decision and told the phone company, in so many words, take this pole and put it somewhere else.

As council member Steve Barbose concluded, “This town has a very special sense of place. AT&T is welcome here, but not in that location … Don’t come here and threaten us.”

To which we say, amen.

  • Sam Oliva

    can you hear me now?

    • Phineas Worthington

      (laughing)

  • Randy Cook

    What if another carrier provides good coverage? Doesn’t that imply that the city has accommodated “filling the gap” even if it isn’t offered to the petitioner? In the same sense, if every cell phone company played the same card as at&t, then the city presumably would be on the hook to grant all of them a site to erect a tower? If the FCC truly forces govts. to bow to the pressures of industry, we have yet another example of how corporate America has bought their way into public policy. Just doesn’t sound very democratic!