The Danville Town Council voted against a Verizon Wireless cell tower proposed for the eastern part of town Tuesday night, siding with residents who opposed the imitation-tree telecommunications pole coming to their rural neighborhood.
Council members shared many of the same concerns as the residents, including the height, aesthetics and noise of the tower, as well as questioning whether the pole was needed to fill an actual gap in coverage -- as the cellular company contended.
"I cannot, in all good conscience, support the project as it has been proposed," Councilman Robert Storer said at the Town Meeting Hall before the council vote. "If we deny this project tonight, it will force (Verizon) to look at the alternatives, and that is what I want them to do."
The unanimous decision to uphold the residents' appeal of the Planning Commission's prior project approval came after a four-hour hearing Tuesday that featured presentations by Verizon's consulting team and the appellants, citizen commentary and council deliberations.
The proposal on the table called for a 60-foot faux monopine tower with accompanying equipment behind a six-foot-tall fence fitted with privacy slats on 1,000 square feet Verizon would have leased at 1455 Lawrence Road.
Verizon representatives said the aim of the tower was to provide the Lawrence Road area with improved cellular service -- focused on increasing data streaming -- as well as offloading service from the nearby Hidden Hills tower.
After months of deliberations and a redesign by Verizon to incorporate an imitation-tree concept, the project was given the go-ahead by the Danville Planning Commission with a 5-2 vote in September, amid outcry from area residents who opposed the tower.
A group of residents then joined together and challenged the commission approval, filing an appeal to the council last month through attorney Bryan Wenter of real estate law firm Miller Starr Regalia.
Coming into Tuesday night's appeal hearing, town planning staff recommended the council deny the appeal and approve the project, saying that no viable alternatives existed to meet Verizon's coverage needs, given the site location, limited visibility from the public, alternate site studies and a radio frequency report that determined the project complied with federal exposure limits.
But the council members unanimously went the other way, deciding there was too much evidence against Verizon's proposed tower to allow it to be built.
"I am concerned about the residents, the neighborhood," Mayor Mike Doyle said before the vote. "They have been through the Design Review Board, the planning commission and sat here (for four hours) ... We were elected to make a decision."
The council agreed with many aspects of the critical 30-minute presentation from the appellant attorney and Lawrence Road resident Jim Richards Tuesday night.
The appeal, filed by Wenter on Oct. 2, argued the tower proposal did not comply with the Danville General Plan and Danville Municipal Code, particularly in regards to the height.
"This (tower would be) in a 35-foot height zone," Wenter told the council, "and you're looking at a 60-foot tower."
The height of the tower was a significant concern raised Tuesday night, as the residents and council contended that 60 feet was excessive for the need in the area.
Michelle Ellis, of Complete Wireless Consulting representing Verizon, responded by stating that the 60-foot design was the minimal height required to provide the services intended. Due to surrounding trees and topography, according to Ellis, a shorter tower would have an affected direct line of sight -- comparing the tower to a light beacon.
Another concern voiced by Richards was that future expansions of the tower could be implemented without further town review. He claimed the tower should really be viewed as an 80-foot-tall plan because the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 would allow the tower to be extended 20 additional feet if deemed necessary by Verizon.
Richards also pointed to the aesthetics, saying that the faux-tree pole would be nothing more than "an ugly green tree" matching no other surrounding plant life.
As Richards pointed out, much of the surrounding trees are deciduous, meaning that half of the year there will be no screening and the tower would stick out as a green column surrounded by brown.
"There is no native tree in this area, or even an introduced one that has a profile anywhere close to these monopines," he said. "The bottom line is that it would be offensive, especially to our rural residence."
Once the meeting was opened to public comments, other residents voiced displeasure not only with the plan itself, but also the initial approval. In all, four of the six citizen speakers, including Richards, said they are Verizon customers.
The town's noise ordinances were also addressed, as the proposed tower would be located adjacent to the Breton's School for Dogs and Cats. The dog kennel facility, according to resident Denise DeFazio, houses up to 200 dogs at a time. She feared being the sound emitted by the tower and its accompanying structure would cause further noise from the kennel.
In addition to the added sound from the dogs and the tower itself, the council and residents were concerned about the operation of a diesel generator within the unmanned facility -- though Ellis claimed that the generators would operate only in the direst of emergency circumstances.
Another key problem, in the opinion of Storer, is whether or not there actually is a gap in coverage.
With some question raised in the final Planning Commission meeting regarding whether or not there was gap coverage that needed to be addressed, Monterosso resident John Kim said he conducted his own research.
After walking, biking and driving around the entire proposed coverage area, Kim said he collected 1,385 "data points" and his findings showed that much of the area revealed strong coverage while very few had less-than-moderate coverage. With those findings, Kim questioned whether there was any additional service needed at all.
Upon completion of the public comments portion of the meeting, Verizon's team took its opportunity for rebuttal and to offer further concessions. Verizon's outside counsel, attorney Paul Albritton, offered for his client to pay for a third-party engineer, selected by the Town Council, to conduct separate research.
"If we can give you the information to make a better decision, whichever way it goes, we would like to do that," Albritton said.
The council decided that even after the potential third-party research was conducted, the proposed tower was not in the best interest of the town, especially in a particularly rural area.
As Storer argued, allowing the structure to be constructed in the face of the general plan could set a scary precedent.
Though the meeting spanned four hours, the decision may have been made much quicker than that, after Albritton early on addressed Verizon's ability to file a lawsuit if the appeal was upheld.
That comment coaxed a decisive response from Councilman Newell Arnerich.
"You threatened to sue us and that is absolutely the most unprofessional thing in my 21 years," Arnerich said. "I really find it very, very offensive. It is very hard to listen to much of what you are saying in a very, very long-winded speech you've given, trying to make your case."
Arnerich's response was met with applause from the 20-plus residents in attendance -- as did the 5-0 vote at the end of the meeting to uphold the appeal with prejudice.