City OK's tower to avoid ATT lawsuit

Posted on June 3, 2014 by Sonoma Valley Sun

To avoid a lawsuit it would likely lose under a restrictive federal law, the Sonoma City Council agreed Monday to allow AT&T to build an 80’ cell tower on Lovall Valley Road. City Attorney Jeffrey Walter told the council that defending its earlier denial of the structure could cost $50,000 to $75,000, and that chances of winning the case “were remote.”

The 3-1 vote (with David Cook in the minority, and Steve Barbose absent) clears the way for AT&T’s plan to build the tower and equipment building on the Sebastiani Winery property near Fourth Street East. Called a “mono-pine style,” the tower will be camouflaged to look like a tree.

The plan was unanimously approved last year by the Planning Commission, then denied in December on appeal by the city council, which responded to neighbor’s aesthetic and health concerns. When the council declined to reconsider the decision, AT&T said it would sue the city.

Under the 1996 Federal Communications Act, the power of local jurisdictions to deny tower installations is severely limited. In effect, Walter said, the city’s hands are tied.

“It is legislation that stepped into this room to usurp your authority,” he said.

Such is the power of the federal law that cell companies have won hundreds of similar lawsuits around the country. “It’s nothing personal.” Walter told the council. “These providers sue everybody.”

Walter said that the applicant, in this case AT&T, must demonstrate that any new tower is necessary to improve service coverage, and that the proposed location is the least intrusive means to close that gap.

AT&T presented its own data to demonstrate that it had met the criteria. Hundreds of homes on the northeast quarter of Sonoma have a poor signal, it said, establishing the legal notion of a “significant gap.”

As for being intrusive, an AT&T report said the company had scouted 19 other locations, including a downtown church and the Sonoma Community Center, before deciding the Lovall Valley Road location would be the best fit.

“AT&T has made its case,” Walter said.

To refute it, the city would have to hire its own experts and develop its own research. The cost to defend the case would be significant – up to $75,000, Walter said – and even then, the prospects of winning are “gloomy.”

One neighbor called it “classic bullying of a large company against a small town without resources.” Others complained about the tower being ugly, affecting property values and being a possible health risk.

Under the federal law, those arguments are in effect inadmissible.

Mayor Tom Rouse, who was the lone vote in favor of the tower in December, reiterated his support. “ We have significant coverage problems,” he said. ‘”People are demanding wireless.” As for the tower itself, “aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder. This is the world we live in today.”

Councilmember Laurie Gallian said that spending up to $75,000 defending a lawsuit the city would likely lose was too big a risk. “This isn’t a moral issue, it’s a fiscal issue,” she said. Councilmember Ken Brown also voted with the majority.

Dissenting was David Cook. “I believe in local control, and this is why.”

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