Verizon Wireless has received the go-ahead to build a new cell tower designed as an imitation tree off Lawrence Road in Danville.
The town's Planning Commission approved the plans for the 60-foot faux monopine tower in a 5-2 vote Tuesday, capping its contentious public debate about the unmanned telecommunications facility that the wireless company said is needed to improve service in the area.
"We can't think myopically about what serves our specific area, even if you do have adequate coverage now, as difficult as that is," commissioner Lynn Overcashier said during the nighttime meeting at the Town Meeting Hall. "Because of the level of evidence that I've seen tonight, I don't see adequate findings to deny (the project)."
Commissioners Andrew Verriere and Archie Bowles cast the dissenting votes following the discussion that featured a one-hour presentation from town staff and Verizon representatives and another hour of public debate.
"The cons (of the proposal) present a huge negative impact on the impact on the peace, tranquility and quality of life in your town. Your community. Your backyard. There has to be a better solution," Lawrence Road resident Jim Richards said in opposition to the cell tower.
The discussion Tuesday included nine citizen speakers, all in opposition of the plan, and nine other Danville residents who registered opposition but chose not to speak.
Opponents cited concerns such as radiation exposure, noise and negative impacts on area property values. An online petition opposing the tower remains active, with 385 supporters as of late Thursday afternoon.
Construction of the cell tower, which will begin as soon as building permits are issues, will take less than two months, according to Verizon representatives.
The commission's decision is subject to a 10-day appeal period, according to town spokesman Geoff Gillette, who said no appeal had been filed to the Town Council as of Thursday morning.
Verizon's project, originally proposed to look like a slim pole, was redesigned as an imitation tree earlier this summer.
The faux monopine, which will be 60 feet tall, will include "tapered branches on top and additional branches on the lower level to help screen the antenna pole," according to Crystal De Castro, town project planner. It will also be painted a non-reflective green and dark brown so that it will blend in with surrounding trees.
"I know there are people who object to these faux trees," commissioner Paul Radich said, "but in this case, what I've seen presented to me is aesthetically pleasing."
The commission is requiring Verizon to also plant real trees on the property to "soften the aesthetics" of adding the tower to 1455 Lawrence Road. The faux tree will sit on a 1,000-square-foot leased area at the rear end of the property, which also contains a home and Breton's School for Dogs & Cats.
The new unmanned tower is needed to improve cell service to those on or around Lawrence Road, and it would aid the workload of current surrounding towers, which Verizon said will reach maximum capacity within 12 months, according to company officials.
The project is a matter of being proactive instead of reactive, according to Radha Sharma, California real estate manager for Verizon.
Research presented by Sharma showed that cell phone data use has doubled annually since 2012 and is expected to grow another 650% by 2018. Those figures, in conjunction with a national survey done by the Cellular Telephone Industries Association, show the area's growing need for improved service, Sharma added.
Verizon looked at other locations to place the tower. but deemed those alternatives unworkable. Another option that Verizon took into consideration was the implementation of small cells -- equipment that can be added to existing utility poles to increase signal.
Michelle Ellis, project manager for Verizon consultant firm Complete Wireless Consulting, said small cells would be "useless" given the area's demands, explaining that they are a better option for areas with a greater number of users crowded into a smaller area, such as San Francisco, as this equipment provides massive boosts in connectivity with a very small radius.
Verriere suggested lining Lawrence Road with small cells, but Ellis reasserted that it would not serve the entire target area.
Vierrere also expressed concern about the tower's height, but that is an issue, Ellis said, that cannot be remedied, with 60 feet being the minimum height required to maintain a clear path in all directions within the target area.
"The height (requirements of an antenna) varies based on (surrounding) terrain," Ellis said. "When you're in a valley, you need something a little taller to get over the changes in terrain."
Some residents were also worried that the antenna would increase noise in the area, causing the nearly 200 dogs in the boarding facility to bark more often.
"I am concerned about the potential increase in noise from the Breton dog kennel," Lawrence Road resident Denise DeFazio said. "We have learned to tolerate the loud barking from the kennel but are worried, with the installation of the cell tower, the noise will increase."
In response, Ellis pointed to the six-foot chain link fence, complete with privacy slats, that will surround the tower. Also, she said maintenance visits would occur no more than once per month and would take place only during normal business hours.
As far as the noise emitted from the facility itself, Ellis contended that the electronic vibration of the tower will produce a buzz at a volume less than that of a refrigerator.
All concerns voiced Tuesday eventually came back to property values. Residents said they were worried that radio frequency waves produced by the tower, as well as other issues voiced, will deplete the value of their homes.
Commissioner Kerri Heusler argued there is no evidence supporting that fear.
Local jurisdictions cannot deny wireless communication facilities based on potential health effects from radio frequency emissions because such emissions are federally regulated, according to De Castro. A third-party radio frequency report determined the project complied with maximum allowable exposure limits regulated by the federal government.
There were also questions raised by citizens and commissioners regarding Verizon's effort to seek public feedback about the tower.
The telecommunication company contended it sent out a text message asking surrounding Verizon users if they feel they would benefit from the placement of a tower on the desired location.
Those messages, however, reportedly were not sent to some Danville residents, including those who live on Lawrence Road.
"The texting campaign is a sham," resident John Kim said. "As a Verizon customer, I have five lines of service in Danville. I did not receive any texts from them." His concerns were immediately seconded by fellow Lawrence Road resident Yue Chen.
Verizon outside counsel Paul Albritton contended that leaving out Lawrence Road residents was an oversight, adding that Verizon would gladly include those users in another text campaign if that was deemed necessary.
The campaign, which included users from Danville to Livermore, received 624 positive responses, according to Albritton, and only 14 responses were to the contrary.
The public comments were followed by a 10-minute discussion of the Planning Commission, where commissioners Verriere and Bowles voiced there concerns.
The other five commissioners, who would go on to vote in favor of the project, praised the residents in attendance and Verizon for its willingness to work with the city to come up with plans that best served its residents.