Simulated view of Hilton Creek Place looking north toward the proposed project site, and the so-called “mono pines.” A balloon at 60 feet was used to set the scale. (Photo: Mono County)
Proposed cell towers in Crowley meet with static. Neighbors lobby for dropped call
“I thought the only lonely place was on the moon,” Paul McCartney once wrote. And while the community of Crowley Lake may not be lonely, when it comes to getting cellular phone service there, you may as well be on the moon.
All that could change soon, however, if a plan from developer Incline Partners is approved to put in cell towers.
Several attempts have been made over the past six years to bring service to what has come to be known as a dead zone have all been thwarted by a mix of Crowley’s recessed, bowl-shaped topography and/or bureaucratic entanglements. Putting a man on the moon took only little longer. And the delays continue, as Incline’s towers recently met with some pushback from a handful of area residents who want more time to examine both the history and possible future of putting up one, and possibly two, 60-foot so-called “mono pine” towers.
One of the earlier locations for a cell site was Crowley’s Fire Station property, attractive in that it would have covered Crooked Creek, residential areas and up to the Green Church on U.S. 395. The site tested well, but ended up caught in a complicated bureaucratic web that involved at least 5 different parties, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Including the Fire Department, a dozen different sites were evaluated by engineers, including Sierra Gables, the Hilton Creek Sewer District, the Crowley Community Center, the Verizon landline switching station, the County’s road shop facility and a handful of private property locations. The engineers ruled out many of the sites for line of sight, height or weather/maintenance issues.
The Verizon station, which is owned by Verizon’s telephone division, actually checked out and exhibited potential – it already had power, gated security, backup systems and other infrastructure. What it didn’t have was a deal that could be agreed upon by Verizon’s telephone division and the wireless division, both doing business as separate entities in the corporate structure of Verizon.
When all the dust settled, that left a small rectangle of space in Crowley that would provide ideal locations for towers, from the Fire Department property to the Verizon switching center and over to the laundromat site, owned by the Czeschins. Unbeknownst to the County at the time, Incline Partners inked a lease with Tommy Czeschin, and then put in an application for Use Permit 10-008 for a pair of 60-foot tall mono pine cell towers on property located behind the Wash All laundromat.
Incline selected the Czeschin property (as opposed to perceptions that the County was somehow part of the choice), and is responsible for all the permitting. Incline also reportedly has customers (AT&T, Verizon and others) lined up for the six or so provider slots each tower can accommodate.
If you’re the average Crowley resident, now closer than ever to getting actual cell service, it sounds great, but not if you’re the next-door neighbor staring down the possibility of having the mono pines in your backyard. Challengers of the towers have referred to the site as a “residential area,” but the actual property the towers would reside on is zoned commercial, according to District 2 Supervisor Hap Hazard. Actual location notwithstanding, however, critics of the project have voiced other concerns:
Limited notification: assertions have been made that only a few residents living within a 300-foot circumference were actually notified of the proposed project.
Visual impact: The “stealthy” mono pine towers proposed are designed to resemble pine trees at a distance. Objectors are worried that the antennas arrays would compromise the towers’ stealth features, and virtually be the tallest “trees” in Crowley. Speculation that the County’s Photoshop visual simulation lacked a red balloon height test were refuted by staff, which told Hazard that a balloon was in fact lofted to 60 feet and used to create the scale depiction.
Decreased property values: Objectors also cited a report from the Appraisal Institute, the largest global professional membership organization for appraisers, with 91 chapters worldwide, which indicated that a cell tower should decrease home value, though it doesn’t specifically say that would be the case. The objectors also conducted a homegrown survey of 25 real estate agents in the Mammoth and Crowley areas and reported that 60% said that in their professional opinion home values would decrease. (The other 40% registered no opinion.)
The Mono County Assessor’s Office advised that local residents could file a Proposition 8 form to trigger reappraisal for decline in property value due to the towers being unsightly and the perception that there is a potential for health concerns. Hazard also showed The Sheet e-mail correspondence from other Crowley residents who disagreed with the objectors, saying they think better cell service would make the area more attractive to potential buyers and existing homeowners.
No specific wireless communications ordinance: Objectors to the tower site also stated that, “the County currently does not have an ordinance to regulate the site of wireless facilities,” whereas Inyo County has a fairly extensive one. Mono’s Assistant County Counsel Stacey Simon explained: “Inyo County has an ordinance that requires persons desiring to install wireless communication facilities in, or within 300 feet of, a residential zoning district, or within certain other enumerated zones if the height exceeds the maximum height allowed in that zone, to procure a conditional use permit (CUP) from the County and have an approved wireless communication plan on file. Outside of one of the above-described districts, the Inyo County ordinance requires only an approved wireless communication plan, but no CUP.”
Simon went on to explain that Mono County already requires the issuance of a CUP for wireless communication facilities, and can require the submission of the same type of information required by Inyo’s wireless communication plan, as part of the CUP process.
Potential health concerns: a major point of trepidation among the skeptical citizenry involves possible harmful environmental effects of radio frequency radiation emissions, aka Electric And Magnetic Field (EMF) radiation. Even those voicing concerns acknowledge that scientific studies on the effects of EMF radiation are inconclusive.
However, in a written memo to the community at large, Pam Bold, whose property is located in close proximity to the proposed tower site, wrote the following on behalf of those questioning some of the project’s key aspects: “They do, however, point to the need for further research to be performed on both the short- and long-term effects of living near cell towers from radio frequency and electromagnetic fields, especially for children.”
That need, however, will not be addressed by Mono County. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates all over-air communication including cellular, trumps the County on decisions involving health. Federal law prohibits state and local agencies from denying tower placement solely on health concerns.
“We should not let outside business interests dictate the location of services and infrastructure within our community,” Bold went on to write in her memo. “A community solution, based on consensus and analysis of alternatives, has the best chance of being widely accepted. We aren’t against cell coverage! We’re just asking that we do our homework and make the best decision for our community.”
And it seems that call for action wasn’t dropped by County staff. A recent flurry of e-mailed concerns prompted Mono Community Development Director Scott Burns to make a late-Wednesday decision to open, but then continue a planned public hearing on the towers that’s on this week’s Mono Planning Commission agenda. Hazard related that Burns said he received enough public comment that he was obligated to “slow down the process” and re-evaluate how much advance notification was given to Crowley area residents about the planned towers. Burns also plans to gather more public review material on the issue of EMF radio waves, including a study that Incline said it would make available.
Hazard said the public hearing would be rescheduled when the additional work is completed. The Mono Planning Commission will meet on Feb. 10 at 10 a.m. in the Bridgeport Courthouse.