The Rancho Santa Fe Association board decided to put the contract for its cellular improvement project on hold as members had many questions about the potential sites. Before awarding the contract for faux tree cellular towers, the RSF Association will hold a town hall meeting.
Rancho Santa Fe is considered the number one problem cell coverage area in the county, according to Philip Wilkinson, a member of the Association tech committee tasked with solving the spotty coverage and endless dropped calls.
At its Feb. 4 meeting, the board had hoped to follow the tech committee’s recommendation to enter an agreement with American Tower Corporation, as its business model is built around providing multiple carriers on a site.
“We want to get the greatest coverage and we want to limit the impact with the ability to co-locate,” said board member and tech committee member Mike Licosati. “Everyone is in agreement to make sure it has the least impact on the community.”
The proposal to improve cellular service includes the construction of faux tree structures (ranging in height from 45 to 90 feet) on two Association-owned properties and one right of way location. The locations are on Lago Lindo and Via de Fortuna, and the right-of-way location is in the roundabout of La Glorieta.
RSF Association Manager Bill Overton said there was some confusion in the community that the board’s vote to award the contract was the end of the process when, in fact, it was just a beginning. Once a contract is awarded, a process begins that includes amending the Wireless Master Plan, approval from the Covenant Design Review Committee, public hearings, going through the San Dieguito Planning Group and county process.
“This has been a year and a half’s worth of work by the tech committee in response to customer demand saying there’s horrible cell reception in the community and it needs to improve for safety, for property values, for a variety of reasons,” Overton said.
After the site locations for the towers were released, many residents expressed concerns about the proximity to their homes.
“When I first learned where the cell sites would be, I was totally stunned out of my brain,” said resident Jean Wedbush. “My first feeling was, ‘Why have we been left out?’”
Tom Szabo, an 11-year resident, said the map of the proposed locations highlighted his home nearby.
“I came here because of the Covenant, it’s rustic, it’s protected, there’s a homeowners association, there’s a board, there’s people here protecting what we paid a lot of money for,” Szabo said. “You’re talking about a 90-foot tower 15 feet from my house. It would be a travesty of your responsibility if you let that happen.”
Wilkinson said that Szabo has been misinformed; that no one would be building a faux tree within 15 feet of someone’s home. The goal is to have the sites as far away from structures as possible, he said.
In 2003, San Diego County adopted an ordinance dealing with wireless telecommunication facilities as they were concerned about a proliferation of carriers — the ordinance encouraged cellular facilities to minimize aesthetic impacts in the communities they supported. One component of the ordinance was the development of a wireless community master plan to identify a preferred design and locations for cellular facilities.
The RSF Association crafted its master plan in 2006 and from various options selected the implementation of a Distributed Antenna System (DAS). Installed in 2008, the DAS has 46 of the maximum 53 nodes within the Covenant with co-located carriers AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.
Verizon does not participate in the DAS although it does have a facility on top of the RSF Fire Station.
“The DAS does not work,” Wilkinson said of the antiquated system. “It was meant primarily for coverage on roadways…It doesn’t get to homes.”
Anne Marie Weller, who was a member of the Wireless Master Plan Committee, said one of the proposed sites is 100 feet from her property line. She said the towers would affect property values, impair aesthetics and substantially damage the marketability of her home as cell towers are viewed as ugly and harmful to people’s health.
Weller said she hopes the Association will consider more equitable solutions.
Resident Laurel Lemarie, also a member of the master plan committee, said the preference of the plan was that towers be placed in commercial areas and only in the background of residential areas. Lemarie also had concerns about the accompanying equipment building screening that will come with the trees —in the case of the La Glorieta location, she said it would take up the entire roundabout in the middle of the road.
Many residents expressed health and safety concerns regarding the faux trees.
“It’s far more dangerous to have a poor cell signal because a phone is working harder against your face trying to make a connection,” Licosati said. “The health impacts are far worse today because our cell phones are working harder than ever to make a connection, that increases the thermal heat which is the only thing that can disrupt DNA.”
Wilkinson said that the sites are roughly 100 watts per cell carrier.
“You can have up to one watt up to your head with your smart phone, which is far greater than any other RF (radio frequency) that you ever receive standing below one of these faux trees,” Wilkinson said.
RSF Association President Ann Boon said all of the community’s questions are a concern to the board and they hope to be able to answer them as they begin the process with ATC, starting with the town hall.
Board member Kim Eggleston voted against tabling the item to March and having the town hall. He said it’s unacceptable that he can’t make a phone call out of his own home.
“We could debate this endlessly and this is why nothing ever happens in this place. There’s a vocal minority who wants to be heard I understand, but this is why we have propane tanks, why we have septic, why we have no cell phone coverage, why we have no internet. This is why this place can’t move forward. Everyone has got a very strong opinion about everything ” Eggleston said. “We’re trying to address everyone’s concerns in a rational way and listen. This community somehow has to pull itself into the 21st century.”
“Your efforts are laudable,” said resident Bob Grigg, who expressed concerns about the safety of the towers. “I think having better cell phone coverage here is a wonderful thing to go for, I think what you’re doing with the fiber, for example, is wonderful. These devices are wonderful, but it has to be put in proper perspective.”