Irate residents demanded action Tuesday by the City Council hamstrung by state and federal laws on two hot issues — leaving folks on both sides of the dais frustrated.
The council voted 4 to 1 to continue a hearing T-Mobile request to submit an application to install a telecommunications tower near Fire Station 3 at Top of the World. Federal law says that local governments cannot prohibit telecommunications installations intended to fill a significant coverage gap but does allow cities some say in the design and location. State law permits the use of single-family homes as treatment facilities for six or fewer non-related residents, which is being challenged in courts, but at present cities or counties cannot prohibit them.
T-Mobile’s application was continued to the Feb. 2 council meeting to schedule an appearance by a company representative to discuss the difference in the more modest installation by Sprint at the fire station and T-Mobile’s proposed 36-foot tall, free-standing tower unwisely disguised as a monoeucalyptus tree.
The proposed tower ignited Top of the World. Fired up opponents of the tower said the unrequired notices sent to Top of the World Elementary School and 35 residences within a 300-foot radius of the proposed installation as a courtesy were inadequate.
“The noticing was feeble at best,” said Karen Schwager on behalf of the Top of the World Neighborhood Assn. Board of Directors, which requested the continuance.
“Though planning staff considered a notice letter to residents within 300 feet of the project ‘a courtesy,’ something with such an impact and as contentious as a cell tower in the neighborhood, especially considering the history of such projects, cannot be regarded as a courtesy,” Schwager said.
However, that is how the law regards it, although the continued hearing will be require noticing and will be advertised by the city.
Schwager criticized the timing of the notifications, which were sent during heavy holiday mailing and travel times. Resident Louise Allison said the noticing area should have been 500 hundred feet for such an important issue, which includes health and safety concerns.
The proposed installation was reviewed for public safety by the Fire Department, which signed off on it.
In any case, an installation cannot be denied on public safety grounds as long as emissions meet federal standards, City Atty. Philip Kohn said. Annual reports are required.
“We have to chase after them, but we do get them,” City Manager Ken Frank said.
The installation is also subject to design review and use permit hearings, which will also be noticed.
“This (Tuesday’s) meeting is for the city as the property owner to authorize the carrier to make an application,” Frank said.
City staff supports the proposed location at the back of Fire Station 3 as less intrusive than a pole in the public right of way.
Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman questioned whether the installation would be used to broaden T-Mobile’s coverage to Aliso Viejo, but was assured that only the gaps in Laguna would be affected.
“Maybe we should all just get rid of our cell phones, then we wouldn’t have to worry about the poles,” Councilwoman Jane Egly said.
Iseman said the issue was too serious to be glib about it.
Egly denied being glib — twice.
“I just think we want a service, we want to use our cell phones and part of that service is having the equipment that is needed,” Egly said. “Now the question is, is that the place?”
Iseman said putting the tower where children congregate is dicey.
“Where could we put it anywhere in this city — in the right of way, on top of my head — we have 50 or 70 of these around town and I’m sure there is not a place or space without children being there.”
One place that might not have a scarcity of children is the park near the proposed installation.
“It will stop people from coming to the park,” Allison said.
Iseman said no other 36-foot-tall, faux eucalypti are installed in residential neighborhoods, which is true, but other installations less offensive to environmentalist are located throughout town.
Egly has one near her home and named other locations.
“What we really should talk about is where it should be and if this (Top of the World) is where the blank of service is, then this is maybe where it should be,” Egly said.
Iseman said she wanted T-Mobile in front of the council to provide some information.
“I think they are hiding someplace,” Iseman said. “We need to ask them direct questions.”
The audience applauded, and the hearing was continued. Egly voted against the continuation.
Rehab facility opposed
The council also voted 4 to 1 to uphold renovations on a South Laguna home that may become a drug-rehab facility.
Opponents of the conversion appealed modifications to the structure, which were approved by the Design Review Board, to present their objections.
However, the council was advised that the building’s use could not affect the decision about the modifications.
“I am sorry that we couldn’t go about this in another way and look into what is really bothering you,” Councilman Kelly Boyd said.
The approved modifications, which the council could review on appeal, included a new sliding door and the relocation of an exterior stairway to the second floor, which appellant Angie Miller said were designed to create a drug rehabilitation facility.
“The neighbors are a little stressed out,” Miller said, on behalf of about 30 people in the audience. ”I appealed it to be heard.”
Miller acknowledged state limitations on council actions, but said that didn’t let the city off the hook.
“The city needs to set protocols on how these facilities can operate safely,” said Candy Harris, who said she represented the parents in the neighborhood.
Miller also included in her appeal a list of 44 opponents to the rehabilitation facility proposed for 31365 Monterey St.
David Montaigne, one of the signatories, said the city has ordinances that deal with issues much less dangerous than the facility, which he claimed had the potential to be life threatening.
“Other communities have taken steps,” Montaigne said.
Frank said the efforts by cities and counties to influence state legislatures on the issue have been singularly unsuccessful.
Newport Beach, which adopted an ordinance, is now being sued by facility operators, who claim the ordinance is too restrictive and residents who claim it is too lenient, Kohn said.
While waiting for the courts to clarify the issue, Laguna tries to work with the owners of proposed treatment homes and the nearby residents to broker an agreeable solution, according to a staff report to the Design Review Board by Zoning Administrator Liane Schuller.
Meetings were held with the applicant, Steven Lomanaco, neighbors and city staff, Schuller said.
Christina Lomanaco, daughter of the property owner, championed her father’s proposal.
She said the facility and others like it could save lives.
“A lot of people have drug problems,” Lomanaco said.
There are eight state licensed rehabilitation facilities with six or fewer residents operating in Laguna and one facility with 28 beds. Treatment and counseling is not allowed on-site at the residential facilities.
Juanita Ramirez also spoke on behalf of the property owner.
“We will be seeking high-end clientele,” Ramirez said. “These people desire privacy. Background checks will be performed. We are very sympathetic to the neighbors, and we have addressed their concerns.”
Iseman, who cast the dissenting vote, suggested that the house be investigated for possible code violations or un-permitted modifications. A closed session was called.
“People don’t like their hands being tied,” Kohn said. “It leads to frustrating forums.”
Boyd said complaints should be directed to Sacramento.
“The cities and the people need to get ahold of Sacramento and say stop this six or less,” Boyd said. “We need to make our own decisions.”