Solana Beach City Council approves modified cell tower structure on top of local pharmacy

In an effort to increase wireless coverage for AT&T customers, the Solana Beach City Council on Sept. 24 approved a cell tower structure on top of a local pharmacy — but not at the cost of the community’s character. Council members approved a modified version of the project, cutting the total height by two feet.

“Obviously, we want to have good coverage for our community,” said Councilman Mike Nichols, who noted that, as an AT&T customer, he has experienced dropped calls in the area.

“But this is our only opportunity to have any input on this,” he added. “Once a facility has been established, by federal law, we have no ability to talk about the aesthetics on it, whatsoever. So this is a precedent-setting situation.”

Located at CVS at 305 South Highway 101, the structure will feature a 22-foot-long by 20-foot-wide antenna enclosure, containing 12 antennas, 24 remote radio units and four surge protectors. As originally proposed, the structure would have stood 10 to 13 feet high as measured from the top of the existing roof, with a total height of 35 feet above the existing grade and with the highest point of the antennas at 34.6 feet above the existing grade. With the council’s vote, the height of the structure and antennas were reduced by two feet.

“Our staff has put in a great deal of work into this project in trying to fit it into the community character in Solana Beach, find the right location, and still, do what we can to achieve our coverage objectives,” said John Osborne, director of external affairs at AT&T, prior to the council’s vote.

He noted the proposed structure would cost roughly $500,000.

“If we didn’t need it, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Osborne said. “We’re trying to fill a coverage gap and we’re trying to address that in a way that our customers will be able to use the service in their home, in their car and wherever they are. … The only way that we can provide the best coverage for your residents and for the people who pass through Solana Beach is if we have that 34-and-a-half-foot height limit.”

AT&T representative Doug Munson, who serves as vice president of M&M Telecom, added that the company would need structures at two different sites if council members approved a modified version of the project.

“What is less intrusive: one site that covers the whole objective … or something that degrades it to where we have to have at least two sites?” he asked.

But after further questioning from the council, Munson acknowledged the company hasn’t yet investigated other sites in the city and whether they would need to build a second structure.

AT&T originally presented the project to the council on March 12, but the item was continued to the council’s May 14 meeting so the applicant could provide a design alternative. On May 14, AT&T requested the project be continued to the July 9 meeting because they needed more time to provide an alternative design.

After looking into alternative designs, the applicant said they were unable to develop a design that would both provide the necessary radio frequency toward Cedros Avenue and be acceptable to the property owners. On June 24, the applicant requested via email that the council make a determination on the originally proposed design.

At the July 9 council meeting, the council asked the applicant to provide evidence that the structure was needed to address a significant gap in coverage. Therefore, the item was continued to the Aug. 27 meeting, but again, the applicant requested a continuance.

Since then, AT&T submitted additional documents, which were analyzed by the city’s third-party consultant.

“AT&T has demonstrated there is a gap in their service capacity,” said the city’s consultant Tripp May during the meeting. “I think that AT&T has provided you with a good range of options. In my professional opinion, the 32.6 tip height that was proposed strikes a reasonable balance.”

With council members acknowledging the need for better coverage but concerned about the height of the structure, City Attorney Johanna Canlas noted the applicant didn’t “have a right to the ideal coverage.”

“It doesn’t have to be the least expensive proposal and it doesn’t have to be the most efficient facility,” she said.

Therefore, the council unanimously approved a modified version of the project.

“The aesthetics is a serious issues in a town where we have pride in our community character and the character of our neighborhoods,” said Councilman Peter Zahn.

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