Over 100 residents from the Ranch attended a town hall meeting at the Garden Club Monday. Rancho Santa Fe Association Manager Bill Overton facilitated an open forum between Association members and representatives from American Tower Corporation (ATC). The meeting was called following the February Board meeting where three prospective cell tower sites were publicized, sparking unease from nearby residents.
Resident Todd Neal outlined the sentiment from those opposed to the deal, now called the ‘Tower Neighbors’, saying, “I think this Board has done an excellent job. I think a lot has been accomplished over the past couple of years… but this cell tower plan needs to be reworked.”
At the outset, Overton explained the goals and purpose for the meeting, saying,
“A few years ago, before I started, there was a survey of what needs to be improved in the community," he explained. "The top two things, I think they were virtually tied: Internet stinks and needs to be improved, and cell reception service stinks and needs to be improved. Tonight we’re having the first public meeting about how we improve cell service in the community."
Overton clarified that the latest decision to engage with ATC was the first step in a broader process of investigating how best to improve the Ranch’s cell service infrastructure without committing to constructing towers.
Area Vice President for ATC, Roger Derrien, led the presentation for ATC, which discussed the factors that went into determining the proposed sites as well as additional information about ATC’s credentials and role in the process.
ATC is the largest tower provider in the United States and specializes in neutral cell tower development.
Derrien explained that ATC opted to recommend what’s known as a ‘macro-solution,’ which entails constructing three large (approx. 95 feet tall) cell towers that would service a large portion of the community. This solution, according to ATC, would accomplish the goal of improved cell service in people’s homes, which are typically far away from thoroughfare roads. The improved service would also reduce the strain on wireless devices, improving battery life.
The proposed sites were meant to be a starting point as ATC attorney Bonnie Belair pointed out.
“We want to stress that this is just a starting point,” said Belair. “ATC partners with the community so we very much want to hear your feedback.”
Rancho Santa Fe residents currently rely on a distributed antenna system (DAS) for cell coverage, which requires many smaller cell antennas spread throughout the community.
At the end of ATC’s presentation, community members raised numerous questions, largely revolving around cost of the sites and physical specifications of the cell tower sites themselves. However, cost projections are not yet attainable since the process is still in its infancy.
Mark Leslie, former senior executive at AT&T in the southwest region, presented against cell towers, arguing that better cell service in the home will be a result of improved Internet broadband access, precluding the need for large cell towers.
“Your broadband is the key. It’s the answer to the large part of the concern in this community,” said Leslie. “The energy, the money, and the time that could be spent designing a network should be spent working with fiber providers [and] broadband providers.”
The ‘Tower Neighbors’ provided an in-depth presentation which examined the threat to property values, likely conflicts with the Protective Covenant, Wireless Master Plan, and nuisances to nearby residents.
Anne-Marie Weller, who worked on the Ranch’s cellular master plan, kicked off the presentation and described the negative impact 95-foot cell towers could have if constructed in Rancho Santa Fe.
“The 95-foot fake cell tower trees are completely disproportionate in size to anything else in the community and will have a negative impact on our cultural landscape,” said Weller.
Neal followed and discussed the likelihood for litigation if such large towers were constructed and cited several provisions in the Protective Covenant including zoning restrictions that would make pursuing the current ‘macro-style’ solution very difficult.
A two-thirds vote of homeowners within 500 feet of the property would be required in order to rezone property that is currently not designated for such use as a cell tower.
“No one should have a cell tower next to their home when we have alternatives,” Neal said.
The Tower Neighbors also contend that the proposed sites lie in conflict with the Wireless Master Plan (WMP) which was approved by the Association Board in 2006. Lisa Bartlett explained that the current Wireless Master Plan prefers antenna structures to be “no more than 35 feet” though there are some exceptions. Likewise, the WMP requires an alternatives analysis be conducted which enumerates all of the possible cell infrastructure options that are available to the community.
Susan Foster and Laurel Lemarié highlighted likely noise and safety problems that could also contribute to lower home values.
Overton ended the evening and remarked on the volume of information that had been presented.
“There’s a lot to consider," he concluded. “We’re just getting started. I think there’s been some very good points made.”