Cell installation on Lomas Santa Fe sparks city council’s ire

It’s back to the drawing board for the third time as AT&T and the Solana Beach City Council wrangle over the details of a cellular array proposed atop the Wedbush building on Lomas Santa Fe Drive.

Facing continuing aesthetic concerns and frustrated by last-minute revisions, the city council on Jan. 10 admonished AT&T on its new round of designs for a cellular installation that will provide coverage along Highway 101 and the Lomas Santa Fe corridor.

AT&T is seeking a five-year permit to install 12 panel antennas, 32 remote radio units, six surge suppressors and two GPS antennas on the roof of the three-and four-story building at 201 Lomas Santa Fe. Federal telecommunications law lays out two key provisions: the city cannot prevent a tower if there’s a proven gap in coverage, and the project must be the least intrusive means possible.

At an initial hearing in December, the council agreed that there will be a coverage gap when AT&T’s existing array atop 505 Lomas Santa Fe is decommissioned. But the council did not consider the proposal to be the least intrusive design — the equipment would extend the building’s elevator tower upward several feet, obstructing view of residents on South Granados Avenue — so the council continued the hearing to Jan. 10 while AT&T reworked its proposal.

Two designs presented last week lowered the height and gathered the equipment into one plastic box that would be painted and textured to match the building —revisions that did not dissuade opposition from neighbors. Gerri Retman, who lives nearby, said she is not against cell towers outright — her family has a telecom array on one of their properties. What troubles her, she said at the Jan. 10 hearing, is the process, pointing out that the city’s consultant recommended that AT&T consider four alternate locations.

“The building will forever be marred with these hideous outcroppings. Let’s get this right and not set a precedent for other telecom companies that come in, run out the clock, and leave the council with little option but to approve a project that’s not good for the community visually,” she said.

The revisions also frustrated the council for coming in mere minutes before the hearing.

“I’d love to approve the application. I’d love to have better cell service. I’m an AT&T user and it’s not great the way it is now,” said Councilwoman Jewel Edson. “But in my opinion, neither of the alternative designs satisfies the aesthetic objectives or the intrusiveness that we discussed during the Dec. 13 council meeting. I need more convincing to approve this project.”

An AT&T rep countered that the designs have met all requirements of the city’s cell tower policy and stressed that the Wedbush building will provide better service than the alternates, most of which would require special permits for exceeding height limits in city code.

“We’re trying to work with the community and get the best design that’s going to work for technology and for the future, but also not impact the neighbors,” he said.

He defended the late revision by saying it was done in response to feedback from an obstructed neighbor that AT&T received only two hours earlier.

But with so little warning—and no chance for the city’s telecom consultant to parse the details—Councilman Mike Nichols bristled at a slew of the details. He urged AT&T to trim the array’s height, even if by a few inches. He took particular issue with landscaping proposed for the public right-of-way and removal of a tree that rises up the building’s front facade. AT&T says the tree is diseased but Nichols and neighbors say it isn’t.

“I’m not in a position to approve it based just on procedure alone,” he said. “This may be the best alternative but we have not had an opportunity to digest it.

For contractual reasons, the council would have had to issue a final ruling last week, but AT&T agreed to extend its tolling agreement by a month so that the council could continue the hearing to its Feb. 14 meeting.