Almanac

News - April 14, 2010

Portola Valley: Cell phone tower proposal will be hard to defeat

by Dave Boyce

Portola Valley residents with homes near a proposed cell phone antenna at Golden Oak Drive and Peak Lane in the Westridge neighborhood told the Planning Commission recently how unhappy they were about having the antenna there at all, much less having to contemplate its aesthetics and the effect on their property values.

The town appears to have two options: a 50-foot pole or a 50-foot pole hidden inside a 60-foot fake tree known as a "monopine."

After considering the matter at its April 7 meeting, the commissioners delayed further discussion of a 10-year conditional use permit for T-Mobile West Corp. The commissioners "need a whole lot more information" on alternatives, Planning Manager Leslie Lambert said in an interview.

The commission has some four months before a decision is necessary. Among the areas of interest, Ms. Lambert said, are the scope and impact of micro-cell antennas — a less prominent alternative — and a third-party opinion of the project, including a so-called gap in coverage claimed by T-Mobile.

The phone company enjoys an advantage under a federal law that, in the interest of promoting competition among phone companies, pre-empts certain local government regulations, Town Attorney Sandy Sloan said.

And if the phone company claims that it needs the antenna to resolve a significant gap in coverage, as is the case here, the local government must prove that the proposal is not the least intrusive way to address that gap.

Aesthetic concerns are a frequent complaint among neighbors, but to justify denying a permit for aesthetic reasons, a local government must provide substantial fact-based evidence of undue visual impact, Ms. Sloan said. Mere opinion or "generalized concerns" will not cut it.

As for worries about radio frequency radiation and its possible effects on health, federal law prohibits local governments from using radiation concerns to determine antenna placement, Ms. Sloan said.

The town may find the micro-cell alternative to be problematic given its line-of-sight limitations amid the steep topography of Portola Valley, Deputy Town Planner Tom Vlasic noted in his remarks to the commission.

With the burden of proof on local government, and with property owner Cal Water agreeable to an antenna, the town's options appear to be little more than choosing which monopine is preferable.

Portola Valley can and should demand a custom-made tree, "the best possible fake tree that could be out there," Mr. Vlasic said.

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