Cell towers’ opponents speak out at Rancho Santa Fe meeting

Opponents of three proposed cell towers in Rancho Santa Fe sent a strong signal to the RSF Association at the Feb. 29 town hall meeting. A group of concerned neighbors made an organized presentation at the meeting, urging that they “step back and slow down” before awarding a contract to American Tower Company (ATC), and encouraged the board to explore options to accomplish better cell service for the community without erecting 95-foot-tall towers on La Glorieta, Lago Lindo and Via de Fortuna.

“This cell tower plan needs to be reworked,” said resident Todd Neal. “This is a fight for everyone’s rights. No one should have a cell tower next to their home when we have alternatives. We cannot, in good conscience, try to solve a community problem by imposing a disproportionate and severe harm on a limited group of homeowners. It’s just not right. I’m asking the board to protect the interest of all Association members and recognize that there will be serious financial harm to some of us if the proposed plan is approved. We don’t want this to move into litigation and we shouldn’t have to go to court to enforce our own CC and Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions), but you will march us into court if you do this in violation of our own protective Covenant.”

The contract with ATC is on the agenda as a potential action item at the March 3 board meeting.

“A vote to sign the ATC contract only means ATC will continue to work with homeowners to find tower locations or other cell solutions that work for our members,” said RSF Association board member Heather Slosar. “It is not a vote to approve the three locations on the map.”

RSF Association Manager Bill Overton said the board is responding to a community need and demand about the lack of cell coverage in Rancho Santa Fe. The current Distributed Antenna System (DAS) is “functionally obsolete” for the data usage of today’s smart phones and is intended mainly to provide good coverage on the roadways—it does not reach the homes. Unreliable service is an inconvenience for residents, and poor 911 service and coverage creates a safety issue, he said. While some opponents have argued that the cell towers decrease their property values, others believe that a lack of cell coverage also lowers property values and makes their homes difficult to sell.

As a response to community concerns, the technology committee began work in 2015. A group of volunteers met with major carriers and learned about proprietary issues and heard all the challenges that Rancho Santa Fe faces due to its topography and low density. The goal was to have the least amount of sites as possible—many carriers located on a few collocated antennas in strategic locations based on signal studies.

The committee’s analysis came up with the three proposed sites on Association-owned properties and the board last month was prepared to enter into a contract with ATC to “get the ball rolling.”

“I want to be really clear it was never the board or any volunteer’s intent to pull a fast one here or sneak anything through in any way. We’re just getting started,” Overton said.

Any project will require Covenant Design Review Committee approval, board approval and a building permit and major use permit from San Diego County, as well as noise, visual impact and environmental studies. Getting through the county process could take nine to 12 months.

ATC, the company the Association could opt to enter into a contract with, is a global company with towers in 13 countries at over 99,000 sites. It is the largest tower provider in the U.S. and many of its towers are “stealth” towers, made to look like trees that blend into the community.

Roger Derrien, the area vice president of ATC, said they understand the shortcomings of the DAS as they are also one of the largest DAS providers in the country.

Derrien said there is a “cost and complexity” to upgrading the DAS and he believes that the Rancho Santa Fe community will be best served by faux trees that provide broader coverage.

One optional solution is three 95-foot, mono-eucalyptus trees that are designed to look very natural. ATC representatives showed renderings of how they think the trees would blend into the community, near surrounding trees that reach 105 feet.

Opponents argued that the renderings misrepresented the height.

“We want to stress that this is just a starting point because ATC partners with the community so we very much want to hear your feedback,” said Bonnie Belair, an attorney with ATC. “People are passionate about where they live and that’s a good thing and that’s what we do at American Tower well. We work with the community. We’ve worked with a lot of historical communities with a lot of very special circumstances.”

Derrien said more than anything in the company’s 21 years of experience, ATC understands the sensitivities that communities have toward the installation of cell towers.

“We have to work with communities like yourself, to be successful, to come up with a solution that meets your collective needs,” Derrien said. “We know we can work together on a proposal and make it work with Rancho Santa Fe.”

In Jackson Hole, Wyo., for example, the company worked with the community for two years to find a solution that worked for them.

Prior to the meeting, Neal and his group of concerned residents requested “respectful and neighborly dialogue on an important, difficult and controversial issue” and the meeting followed that intent.

Neal presented his case that the Rancho Santa Fe Protective Covenant prohibits cell towers on the three proposed locations due to the defined and limited uses on the land classifications and that the placement of these towers would be a violation of the Association’s own CC and Rs.

To change the land classification for the properties would require a two-thirds approval from surrounding neighbors within 500 feet. Resident Laurel LeMarie said her group has conducted its own outreach and demonstrated with a map that approval would not be granted because so many neighbors are in opposition—they plan to present signatures in opposition this week to the board.

LeMarie described details about the “irreversible change” to the character of the area that the towers would bring, including the large trucks that would require 24-7 access to the site for servicing and the accompanying equipment buildings for the site. She visited a similar site in San Dieguito Park and said the above-ground vault for the site was noisy and loud and never stopped buzzing, providing audio for the audience to hear for themselves, and also noted that the in-ground unit seemed to emit a smelly exhaust.

Anne Marie Weller, a member of the so-called “Tower Neighbors,” has lived on Via de Fortuna for 16 years and will be directly across from the proposed site. Weller said she believes the towers will greatly damage the rural aesthetics for which people moved to Rancho Santa Fe.

Weller said the proposed solution will essentially “chain homeowners to their homes” as it will negatively impact their property values—she pointed to a survey of local realtors that showed that buyers will not buy a house near a cell site.

“Our position is not to move the towers to someone else’s neighborhood,” Neal said. “Our position is that cell towers should not be in anyone’s backyard in the Covenant. Even if cell towers are needed, they should be placed in non-residential locations. I don’t think any of us bought our homes or moved into the Covenant with the intention or expectation that we would be living next door to a cell tower.”