Almanac

News - October 20, 2010

Portola Valley: Cell tower will rise on Cal Water site

by Dave Boyce

It may be a faux tree, it may be a pole, it may even be an objet d'art, but a 50- to 55-foot cell phone tower will rise at the corner of Peak Lane and Golden Oak Drive in Portola Valley, there to co-exist with a 750,000-gallon water tank owned by the California Water Co.

Neighbors concerned about views, radiation and seemingly-uncared-for landscape screening urged the Town Council on Oct. 13 to reject a conditional use permit application from T-Mobile West Corp., which wants to erect a tower to improve coverage in central Portola Valley.

The council approved a permit in a unanimous vote, with Councilman John Richards absent, but it had little choice. The federal government disallows consideration of concerns about radiation and property values, and tips the scales in favor of closing "significant" phone coverage gaps.

T-Mobile's evidence of a significant gap, and a concurring finding from the town's independent analyst, made the decision more or less inevitable. Other factors that might have weighed in favor of denial faded in comparison with the significant gap finding, a trump card for the company.

In its July rejection of T-Mobile, the Planning Commission claimed impacts to "the spirit and natural beauty of Portola Valley." But a denial for aesthetic reasons requires "substantial evidence," according to a report by Town Attorney Sandy Sloan. The presence of telephone poles, for example, could undermine claims of views being damaged by the addition of a similarly shaped object.

"I would place a heavy weight and a much higher priority on that (concurring) evidence" of a significant gap, Councilwoman Ann Wengert said.

Councilwoman Maryann Derwin said she found her choice to be "extremely painful" and her greatest challenge since joining the council in 2005. "I'm going to have to err on the side of a significant gap even if it pains me to do so," she said.

"Our consultant found a gap," Councilman Ted Driscoll said. "It's hard for me to see how we can prevail in litigation if our consultant is contradicting us."

Mayor Steve Toben, calling the decision "exceedingly painful," noted the council's obligation to follow the law. One positive outcome, Mr. Toben added, is that the tower could add redundancy to phone coverage after a major disaster such as an earthquake.

Would T-Mobile sue if rejected, Mr. Driscoll wanted to know. The case would be handed off to a national law firm, said Paul Albritton of the San Francisco firm Mackenzie & Albritton, who was representing T-Mobile at the meeting.

Ms. Wengert commented that this case is likely to be merely Round 1. "We are in the middle of a telecommunications revolution," she said. "Communications are not only changing, they're changing rapidly."

The tower doesn't have to be an eyesore, Ms. Derwin noted. A Web search, she said, turned up towers that are windmills, smokestacks, flagpoles with flags, crosses, grain silos, and works of art.

In an e-mail that included several examples was one near Barcelona, the Montjuic Communications Tower — though at 446 feet tall not necessarily apropos for Portola Valley. The soaring white structure by noted Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is both dramatic and mysterious.

Resident views

"Large companies use federal law to enable them to bludgeon local communities," said resident Ray Conley. He received a round of applause from the audience.

Cal Water claims to maintain landscape screening of the water tank but does not follow through, a Peak Lane resident said amid other such complaints. "What we have at this point is a series of empty promises."

Vegetation is removed to improve fire safety, and complaints about a new trench are misplaced in that it will improve tank water levels, a Cal Water spokesman said. "We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," he added. "We're doing our best is all I'm trying to get at."

"We want to see the screening maintained, enhanced and made better," Mayor Toben asserted in response. Find that "happy medium" in being sensitive and responsive to the community, he added.

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