While most county residents would probably agree on the need to improve cell phone service in the area, the installation of new cell towers is often controversial.
The recent submission of an application from AT&T to the Calaveras County Planning Department for an administrative-use permit to erect a 140-foot cell tower in a residential area of Vallecito has sparked strong opposition from a group of local residents.
“We kind of got blindsided,” said Julie Hollars, who lives across Main Street from the proposed site. “We felt like we didn’t have a say in the matter.”
Last month, residents whose properties are within 300 feet of the roughly 20-acre parcel containing the proposed project were sent notification letters from the planning department. After those closest to the proposed site were notified, members of the close-knit community got together, drafted a petition and sent off their own letters of protest to the planning department.
The concerns outlined in the petition include aesthetics, sound annoyance, health effects, declining property values, potential fire hazards, effects on pollinators, and fears that one tower in the neighborhood will lead to more. The petition also requests the right to a public hearing, which is not required for administrative-use permits.
“There are alternate landowners willing to work with the county and cellular company to install this tower well outside the immediate town and away from residents and farmers,” the petition reads. “We ask that the residents and landowners have a part of this decision process.”
Eighty Vallecito residents have signed a paper petition, and an additional 15 have signed an online petition, Hollars said.
While Hollars’ main concern is health impacts, she is also worried about the effects the tower could have on the local bee population.
“I’m fifth-generation on this property here,” she said. “I have a farm and we have pollinators. … (The tower) could mess with their electromagnetic ability to get back to the hive. … If I lose my bees, I won’t have a business anymore.”
Hollars said that she has contacted a representative of AT&T about the project.
“She said, ‘We didn’t know there was opposition,’” Hollars said. “Well, you couldn’t have known, because nobody asked.”
On Jan. 8, a group of residents opposed to the project met with the Enterprise on the corner of Canepa Lane and Main Street in Vallecito, across from the proposed site at 3984 Main Street.
Dan Malatesta, who has lived in Vallecito for 22 years and owns a parcel near the project, said that he was concerned about the speed with which the project seemed to be going through. He said he had mixed feelings about a new cell tower in Vallecito.
“A tower is needed around here to improve service because it drops off all of the time,” he said. “But, there’s other places to put it that are available. This is probably the cheapest.”
Richard Howard recently made a sign reading “No Cell Phone Tower Here Please,” and placed it in front of his home, which faces the proposed site.
“I know there’s a lot of reasons why people want really fast service, but this just doesn’t seem an appropriate place for the cell tower,” he said. “This little valley is so beautiful–-why would you put a cell tower slightly up off of the lowest point in Vallecito, when you have mountains just off to the side which would be away from most people in town and out of sight?”
Richard Howard’s wife, Mary Ellen Howard, said that, “If you want something done, you have to speak up.
“There’s a lot of open country around Vallecito, and there’s a lot of places to put it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be in our front yards. It doesn’t have to be on Main Street, Vallecito.”
Mary Ellen Howard moved to Vallecito as a small child about 60 years ago, along with her sister, Debbie Jensen, who lives on Coyote Creek Road, even closer to the site of the proposed tower.
Jensen said that she was frustrated by the apparent ease of the process of gaining approval through the county for a cell tower, when approval for other projects seemed to be much more difficult and time consuming.
“We’re being railroaded,” she said. “I’m ready to start really protesting.”
Jensen said she said she was especially concerned about potential health effects, noise pollution and impacts on property values.
“My whole life I’ve been involved with this town,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody—we’re all family. That’s why we’re all working together to do something about this.”
Jensen said that she might not want her granddaughter coming to her property if the tower were installed.
“It’s not healthy for them, but they expect us to live with that,” she said. “We don’t even have a stoplight in town. There are no businesses. We value our peace and quiet.”
Ray McDonell also lives on Coyote Creek Road especially close to the site of the proposed project.
“We have no time to react,” he said. “We should have a voice.”
Although Eric Bausback’s parcel is within 300 feet of the project parcel, he said he has yet to receive a notification letter from the county. Several residents said that they didn’t receive their letters until the end of December due to mail delays during the holidays. Bausback said that he had only found out about the project through a neighbor the day before.
“I’m opposed to it,” he said. “I’m going to go call the planning department.”
Planning Director Peter Maurer said that the installation of new cell towers in the county is often controversial.
“It’s really hard to avoid that conflict for all of the cell towers that we have, even though everyone wants to have good cell communication,” he said. “There’s a tradeoff there, and unfortunately, the trade off is more direct to the people that are having to look at the cell tower. They’re the ones getting the negative aspect of it.”
The county is limited in the concerns that it can address in processing applications for cell towers, Maurer said.
“A lot of the concerns about cell towers, the local jurisdiction—the counties and the cities—have been precluded from addressing because it’s been determined by the federal government or the state government that these are state and federal issues that are addressed through those laws,” he said. “We’re very limited in what we can and cannot require of communication facilities in our permitting process, and we have a very short timeframe to review those.”
Scott Speer is the county’s planner responsible for processing the application. He said that he sent out notification letters to affected property owners the same day that the administrative-use permit application was submitted to the planning department on Dec. 15.
“This project itself is in the very preliminary stages,” he said. “They just turned it in.”
Up until this week, the project was in a 30-day initial review period, during which time the planning department ensures that the application is complete. Local residents also have an opportunity to comment during this time.
“If we need any more information from (the applicant), we have 30 days to let them know,” Speer said. “When it comes to cell towers, there is a federally mandated review timeframe that we have to deal with that’s fairly strict, and we have to make sure that we hit these certain benchmarks.”
The processing of applications for permits for cell towers has been streamlined across the country in recent years to boost connectivity. Speer said that the federally mandated review period for cell towers can be no longer than about six months.
Following the initial review period, the project will go through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process to determine and address environmental impacts, which will entail another 30-day review period in which affected residents within 300 feet of the parcel containing the project and others who commented during the initial comment period will again be notified and have another opportunity to comment.
“When it boils down to it, the main things that we look at for cell towers are aesthetics—its visual impact on the environment—and noise,” Speer said.
The county cannot deny the application over health concerns due to the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996, which states that, “No State or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the Commission’s regulations concerning such emissions.”
Many studies have suggested that radio frequency (RF) signals may have harmful effects on human health. In 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
“At this time, there’s no strong evidence that exposure to RF waves from cell phone towers causes any noticeable health effects,” The American Cancer Society’s website states. “However, this does not mean that the RF waves from cell phone towers have been proven to be absolutely safe. Most expert organizations agree that more research is needed to help clarify this, especially for any possible long-term effects.”
After the project goes through the CEQA process, the planning department will make a decision. Following this decision, members of the public have a right to appeal.
“With an administrative-use permit, the only way you can get to public hearing is if you file an appeal after a project is approved or denied,” Speer said. “An appeal has to be filed within 15 calendar days of the date of our decision, and an appeal fee of $500 has to be paid at the time that you turn in your appeal. That will take the project to the planning commission and you will have a public hearing.”
Speer said he had already heard from a number of concerned residents in Vallecito.
“I’ve definitely been hearing more on this one than cell towers in the recent past,” he said. “When you get into places where there’s a little bit higher concentration of people, sites that are more visible, then you get a little more controversy, and this is definitely one of those places.”
The planning department will take public concerns about the project into consideration, Speer said.
“We definitely do take the local consideration into our evaluation of the project,” he said. “Just because there’s no public hearing doesn’t mean we’re not listening to the public. We’re sending out these notices to everybody for a reason, and we do want to hear what people’s opinions are on this project.”
AT&T’s Lead Public Relations Manager Megan Daly declined to comment on the project.
“(W)e don’t have anything to share at this time,” she said.
Hollars said that she hoped the project would be denied or relocated to a more suitable location.
“We’re one of those towns that didn’t develop, and there’s a reason why we didn’t develop—we didn’t want to be developed,” she said. “We don’t want to be Murphys. We want to stay Vallecito.”