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Simi, Thousand Oaks Play Catch-Up on Guidelines for Cellular Antennas

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Caught flat-footed by a fast-moving wave of new cellular phone antennas, planners in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks are backpedaling furiously to lay down installation guidelines before the region is overrun with eyesores.

The antennas--rigid, stark and, some planners say, ugly--could be popping up atop Simi Valley office buildings and Thousand Oaks ridgelines as the cellular industry tries to fill gaps in its transmission grid.

Because obstacles like hills and tall buildings cut off cellular phone calls, large carriers such as A T & T and Pacific Bell have begun installing more antennas inside city limits.

The antennas in Simi Valley did not look like much in the planning stages-- innocuous, gray, metal bars barely 6 feet tall that would stand atop an office building amid air conditioners and chimney vents.

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“It appeared there would be no problem with it,” said Simi Valley Planning Commissioner Dean Kunicki. “But after they went up on the building, none of the commissioners were pleased with what they saw.”

An array of four A T & T Wireless Services antennas were bolted to a metal framework more than 8 feet high and perched on a parapet overlooking Los Angeles Avenue.

And just as Pacific Bell was seeking permission to install its own nine-panel antenna array atop a two-story office building on Sequoia Avenue, the city called a halt.

It froze future applications from other cellular providers and scheduled a joint City Council and Planning Commission meeting this Wednesday to draft a policy for future antenna placement.

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“We know this isn’t going to be the last cellular company coming to us with a request for these antennas,” Kunicki said Friday. “I’d like to make the process seamless to the next folks who come along, so let’s address it now to come up with policies and standards so that we can deal with it on a staff level.”

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Meanwhile, Thousand Oaks city staff have already recommended that the Planning Commission let A T & T build four new antennas, up to 27 feet tall, atop ridgelines overlooking Newbury Park.

This, despite the fact that the proposed antenna site is protected by a city ordinance restricting development on ridgelines. The antennas will be hard to spot against the sky, planners said, and will bring better service to Newbury Park’s cellular phone customers.

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While commissioners said they wanted more comments from neighbors about the site before making a decision, several said the project could fit in the area. “I’m pretty much satisfied that it’s a worthwhile project that we should go ahead with,” said commission Chairman Forrest Frields.

The antennas would occupy a privately owned lot less than an acre in size that is surrounded by open space, just east of Reino Road.

If approved, the facility will be enclosed by a vinyl-covered chain-link fence and camouflaged by native vegetation planted around the site.

The idea, says A T & T project manager Clark Harris, is to reduce the number of complaints from local customers who lose their cell-phone calls when hilly terrain cuts off the signal.

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Wireless transmissions operate on a line-of-sight basis, he said, and the knolls of Newbury Park often break up signals from the nearest A T & T facility, atop a ridge south of the Ventura Freeway in Thousand Oaks.

“You’re driving home in the middle of a call, and all of a sudden you drop the call [lose the connection]” Harris said. “That’s because we don’t have the coverage there. And that goes for emergency personnel as well.”

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Frields, who belongs to a volunteer emergency aid group in Thousand Oaks, said he is troubled by the lack of good cellular communications in both Newbury Park and Point Mugu State Park to the southwest.

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Ventura County fire and sheriff’s departments can rely on radios, Frields said, but citizens who may need help in accidents or other emergencies are more likely to use cellular phones.

“I see this as much as a health and safety issue as a convenience issue,” he said.

Although the proposed antennas will stick out above the ridgeline, violating a Thousand Oaks ordinance designed to protect ridges, several commissioners said the project could work.

“I think it can be done sensitively,” Commissioner Linda Parks said.

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But some environmentalists registered shock and surprise on learning of the plan.

“My goodness!” said Michelle Koetke of Residents to Preserve Newbury Park. “This is concrete proof of why we must have the parks initiative in place; it must be passed this fall,” she said, referring to a measure that would prevent any change in the use of open space or parkland without a vote of Thousand Oaks citizens.

“This is the kind of way they pick at the standards, they whittle away at open space, and that’s what we’re fighting about . . . This is an absolutely stunning recommendation. I’m just amazed.”

Simi Valley would likely scrutinize any attempt to build cellular antennas atop its near-pristine ridgelines, said Kunicki.

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“The ridgelines are sort of sacrosanct, and it’s a real thumbprint of what this community is,” he said. “With all this latest modern technology . . . there just ought to be some other way out there of dealing with this without obtrusive antennas.”

Reed is a Times staff writer and Baker is a correspondent.


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