A proposal by Verizon to install a wireless telecommunication facility at Moulton Meadows Park was approved Tuesday.
The City Council voted 3 to 2 on the proposed 832-square-foot installation. It will include a 36-foot-high pole disguised by a fake pine tree, and four radio equipment cabinets and supporting cables to be enclosed behind a concrete wall behind the tennis court at the park. The proposal will go to the Planning Commission for a public hearing and recommendations.
“I want to vent my opposition to the construction of the cell tower at Moulton Meadows,” resident Gustavo Grad said. “My opposition is not based on aesthetic concerns to the 36-foot-high pine tree nor the possible adverse effect on property value, but concern for the potential harm caused by this technology.
“Basically I am arguing for an end of tower proliferation near schools or where children spend time.”
However, federal law prohibits the city from denying a cell site on the basis of public health and safety related to radio emissions, according to City Atty. Philip Kohn.
Grad promised a fight, similar to the one waged in January by Top of the World residents against a proposal by T-Mobile to install an equally tall telecommunications tower disguised as a fake eucalyptus tree at Fire Station Three. The proposal was abandoned due to neighborhood opposition.
Grad was the lone opponent from the public Tuesday, possibly because neighbors were not notified, two council members said.
Councilwoman Verna Rollinger and Mayor Pro Tem Toni Iseman expressed dismay that park neighbors, schools and parents had not been informed of the hearing. But the agenda item was posted, per city law.
“We shouldn’t go forward because we haven’t noticed the neighborhood and I believe an 800-square-foot [project] should be,” Rollinger said. “That is the size of a small house, and they should buy a lot.”
Mayor Elizabeth Pearson said the telecommunications companies don’t have to buy a lot, and that they can put their installations in the right of way.
“Where is there an 800 square feet of public right of way?” Rollinger asked.
Councilwoman Jane Egly and Iseman had a more rigorous discussion.
Iseman referred to literature that casts doubt on the claims that the radio waves cause no harm.
“Literature also says the world is flat, but that has been debunked,” Egly said.
Egly maintained that science indicates that the impacts of radio waves are not harmful, citing information provided to the council by Laguna Beach resident Joie Jones, a consultant to the Department of Energy and professor of radiological science at UC Irvine.
Jones wrote a memo to all council members and the city manager’s office after the public outcry against the T-Mobile installation. She stated that a few studies over the years have suggested adverse effects, but the studies were either withdrawn because of error or demonstrated to be incorrect.
Cell towers actually operate thousands of times below FCC limits and produce radiation equivalent to a 100-watt bulb, considerably less than the radiation produced by the lights in the Council Chambers during a meeting, Jones stated.
In his memo, Jones also rebutted the notion that cell-phone towers have an adverse effect on property values, an issue raised at the January hearing.
“An extensive study published by the New York Times two years ago showed that this was not the case,” Jones wrote. “The study examined 20 regions around the country including Southern California.”
Jones had presented a tutorial in 1999 for the council on the effects of radio waves from cell sites and offered to update the presentation for free if the council thought it would be helpful to them and to the public.
“I told them then that the installations that operate within FCC guidelines — and they do — are not harmful and additional data since then confirms that,” Jones said Wednesday. “There is absolutely no evidence of any biological effect whatsoever.”
Iseman and Egly had sparred at the T-Mobile hearing Jan. 5 about health, safety and aesthetical issues.
Iseman questioned then whether the installation at Top of the World could 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,” Egly said.
Iseman said the issue was too serious to be glib about it, an accusation Egly denied.
“I just think we want a service, we want a service to use our cell phones and part of that service is having the equipment that is needed,” Egly said.
The only question, then, is where does the equipment go?
Not anywhere children frequent, if Iseman has her way.
“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 place or space without children being there,” Egly said.
This time Iseman asked if Verizon had done installations with more equipment cabinets than the four proposed for Moulton Meadows.
Iseman was informed by company representative Kristin Galardo that six cabinets are not unusual.
Iseman also wanted to know if the numbers increases the radio waves.
No, according to Jones.
“You could have a thousand of them and still be within the regs,” Jones said.
Annual reports are required.
The bottom line is federal law, said Pearson, who was on the Planning Commission when the city’s ordinance on telecommunication sites was created. She asked to have the ordinance distributed to all the council members.
“We have a dilemma,” she said. “Cell-phone companies have to provide coverage by FCC rules. And they have to locate them somewhere. There are cell sites all over town. There is fear, but the FCC is in control.”
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.
Installations proposed for public rights-of-way put the city on the spot. If a cell-phone company can demonstrate that there is no other reasonable or feasible option to the right of way and can demonstrate a coverage gap — which T-Mobile and Verizon did — the city is obliged by federal law to allow the installation.
Public hearings are required and the city is able to exercise reasonable opposition to the appearance of the facility, but not to the extent of prohibiting it, according to Kohn.
If the company submits 10 designs and is denied all of them, the courts would not look favorably on the city’s position, he said.
The proposed site for the Verizon tower on city-owned land is expected to improve service to a somewhat semi-circular area of 1 to 2 miles outward toward another Verizon wireless site at 1600 S. Coast Hwy.
The new site would conform to the city’s Wireless Master Plan and is located where the company’s coverage is weak or non-existent.
If given final approval, Verizon will lease the site from the city for $25,800 for the first year and increase it by 3% every year for 10 years.