Marin County Supervisors Reject Cell Tower on San Rafael Church Grounds

By RICHARD HALSTEAD, Marin Independent Journal, Oct 17, 2020 | Original Marin IJ article here

A proposal to build a new wireless communications facility disguised as a 33-foot bell tower to St. Luke Presbyterian Church in San Rafael was rejected by Marin County supervisors on Tuesday. The supervisors by a 4-0 vote upheld a denial of AT&T’s application by the county Planning Commission on Sept. 28. Supervisor Judy Arnold missed the meeting.

The planned 12-foot-by-12 foot-wide structure would have contained nine panel antennas, 15 relay radio units and associated equipment cabinets.

Neighborhood residents expressed concern that the tower would generate potentially harmful radio wave emissions, block views and constitute an eyesore. An online petition to block the project has been signed by more than 130 people.

“It’s clear they’re just focusing on putting a round peg into a square hole and trying to circumvent the process,” said Kristen Williams, one of several members of the public to comment during Tuesday’s hearing.

State and federal laws limit the county’s ability to reject applications for wireless facilities. The Federal Telecommunications Act prohibits the county from making placement, construction and modification decisions based on environmental effects denying a project based on health of radio frequency emissions as long as the facility complies with federal radio frequency standards. The county may impose certain design requirements as long as the requirements are reasonable and technically feasible.

The county, however, may not deny a project if it is necessary to fill a significant gap in the applicant’s wireless telecommunications service network and the project is the least intrusive means of filling the significant gap.

“I don’t care if you can’t consider health effects,” Stan Urban told supervisors during the public comment portion of the hearing. “The rest of us can and do.”

Urban said that in addition to possible negative health consequences, he was aware that the tower would lower property values in the area.

Eli Froneberger said, “The community sent over 100 pages of documents that raise a multitude of issues including property taxes, property values, bad faith claims that this is to cover a gap in emergency radio frequencies and commercialization of a residential zone.”

Explaining his vote to uphold the denial, Supervisor Damon Connolly, whose district includes San Rafael, made it clear he was aware of the county’s limited authority to deny applications.

“St. Luke’s is located deep within a residential neighborhood and is surrounded by single-family homes,” Connolly said. “AT&T is proposing a site in the least preferred location under the Marin County Telecommunications Facilities Policy Plan.

The applicant has not shown that it has adequately analyzed alternative sites that are in line with the policy,” Connolly added. “The record does not demonstrate that other more suitable sites are unavailable or technically infeasible. Additionally, the applicant has not shown a significant gap in coverage.”

Carl Jones, an AT&T representative, however, said that his company had “shown that we have a significant gap in coverage in this particular area.” Aaron Shank, an attorney representing AT&T, said, “We did work closely with the county in an effort to identify alternative sites.”

On Tuesday, shortly before the hearing, AT&T submitted construction drawings for an alternative proposal to construct a wireless antenna disguised as a pine tree, a “monopine,” on a southern portion of the church’s property.

Under federal law, the county had until Oct. 31 to rule on AT&T’s application. Shank said if the county needed more time to consider the monopine design AT&T would agree not to take any legal action in the meantime.

Immanuel Bereket, a county planner handling the application, said, “The alternative projects the applicant mentioned in his application are substantially incomplete with any of our submittal requirements. Each revision lack any kind of technical studies needed to review the application.”