Supes uphold rejection of celltower for Crowley
It seems that a bird in the hand isn’t worth two in the bush anymore, at least not when it comes to Crowley cell service. On Tuesday night, the Mono County Board of Supervisors denied an appeal filed by cell tower developer Incline Partners, which sought to overturn a previous use permit denial by the County’s Planning Commission.
Incline Partners had hoped to erect a controversial pair of 60-foot so-called “mono pine” cell towers on a .46-acre, commercially zoned lot owned by Tommy Czeschin. The property is surrounded by residential homes.
Like the April 14 Planning Commission meeting, the Crowley Lake Community Center was packed once again with those for and against the towers. The Planning Commission denied the Use Permit (10-008) by a narrow 3-2 margin, though some opponents at Tuesday’s Board hearing pointed to comments made at the time by the two dissenting commissioners, which indicated that had their been other alternatives, they might have also voted to deny.
The original denial was based on lot size, which was deemed inappropriate, and an inability to find that the project was not detrimental to private property (the towers would be visible by three and in the direct viewshed of one home, creating substantial visual impacts), as well as other conflicts with the General Plan, particularly aesthetic impactsof the towers and gross violations of design guidelines.
As with the Planning Commission’s deliberations, the Board was prohibited from making any decisions based on any health or EMF-related issues. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits local governments from using EMF radiation or transmission as a criteria to deny putting up such facilities.
Incline Partners executives Mike Flynn and John Peterson made a very polished pitch on just about every aspect of the project, including concessions for higher wind tolerances, new photo simulations, timelines, tenant lease terms and improved tower aesthetics.
When the aisle resembles a chasm
“One of the announcements I didn’t have to make was please turn off your cell phones,” Hazard quipped. But apart from Rick Phelps’s comments, which included a quote from The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” the divided community found little else amusing during a contentious public comment period.
Supporters thought Incline did a better job presenting its project this time, as opposed to the Planning Commission meeting, and many proponents suggested that, a la the community’s recent water tank, cellular is “necessary service” and called for the community to step into the 21st century. Denying the project on some “slight visual impacts” was called “unreasonable.”
One of the most convincing notes of support came from Crowley Lake Community Center Coordinator Abigail Don. “The biggest complaint from tourists is no cell service,” she observed. Don also blasted what she perceived as a lack of civility on display at the April Planning Commission meeting. “I think the community divided itself at that meeting and many unnecessary, inappropriate things were said, and people were thrown under the bus. We can do better.”
But Incline’s gussied up presentation didn’t cut any ice with opponents, including John and Victoria Rawson, who stuck to their previous complaints of viewshed impacts to their home, which is within 150 feet of the proposed tower site. “We shouldn’t have towers in the geographic center of town,” they stated. [Note: a 63-foot natural pine tree, located on the corner of the Wash-All site, is already visible in the Rawson’s viewshed.] Mr. Rawson also resubmitted what he said were expert opinions from realtors pointing to diminished property values if the Incline project was allowed to proceed.
One of the Rawson’s staunchest allies, Pam Bold, whose house is also on Juniper above the site. She called for the Board to uphold the Planners’ denial, pointing out that the commissioners are Board-appointed and not chasing re-election. Other sites were not adequately presented in the previous meeting, and weren’t included in the original application. Bold also criticized the new photo simulations, saying they were taken when the Aspens were in full bloom.
Opponents were also united in their disdain for what they maintained were gross violations of setback guidelines. According to County Assistant Planner Heather deBethizy, the 40’ x 60’ building planned for the site met the “hard and fast setback guidelines” as specified by County code, though she did acknowledge that it failed to comply with “design guidelines.” Roughly 100’ to 150’ of recommended setback would have been reduced to 10’ or 15’, which detractors considered excessive.
Incline’s Peterson disputed the Planning Commission findings, saying the design guidelines are not mandatory. “Requirements of 1.5 and 2.5 times the tower heights would eliminate any such cell structures in the Crowley urbanized area,” he said. “The Planning Commission erred.”
Peterson and cohort Flynn also railed against opponents’ insistence that aesthetics and visual impacts would lead to reduced property values and degradation of the neighborhood’s character. “There’s no clear evidence that property values would be diminished. Commercially zoned areas have impacts,” Flynn said.
Project supporters made conspicuous mention of health and safety concerns, making the case that better cell service could make the difference between life and death, and aid first responders in crisis situations. But opponents such as Daylight Kerwin lamented not being able to discuss other health concerns. “It’s interesting we can talk about health and safety issues of not having cell service, but we can’t talk about long-term health issues [associated with cell towers],” she pointed out.
Viva la Vista Towers?
Dead as it might be, the Incline project isn’t the last hope for Crowley cell service. As Yoda said, “There is another.” Allowed to speak during the evening was Robert MacLachlan with Tustin-based Vista Towers. Just within the last week, he filed a use permit application with the County for a proposed “Vista Verizon Tower Site” near Hilton Creek, which DeBethizy said is being evaluated. “[Vista] only came back in light of the original denial because there was enough interest from the town in an alternate site.”
Board Chair Hazard said he didn’t want Vista to become a “sideshow” and distract from Incline’s appeal, which was the singular focus of the evening’s agenda, though MacLachlan’s impact on the evening’s events would be clearly felt later on.
MacLachlan said he is currently in discussion with Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) on terms for a possible 25-year lease. LADWP, he said, called Vista upon learning of the Planning Commission’s denial of Incline. An agreement, he said, could be done in as little as three months.
Even if LADWP agrees to lease the property, the cell site comes with unknowns, including environmental impacts on nearby hiking trails, plants and wildlife. Opinions vary on the coverage maps. Verizon and LADWP seem to think the site provides “excellent coverage,” though AT&T’s RF engineers reportedly said the location was “a no go.” He said Verizon performed a site walk within the last 10 days, and concluded it was “superior” to the Czeschin site. “I think the Sherwin Summit is better served by the location at Hilton Creek,” he opined.
Vista’s tower, acknowledged MacLachlan, would be visible against the hillside. “There will be some visual impact,” he said.
At the time of the Planning Commission ruling, the Vista project essentially didn’t exist as a formal option for the County to consider. “It’s an alternative, but is it viable? We don’t know that yet,” Hazard cautioned. He also echoed the point that the naked terrain wouldn’t leave so much as a fig leaf to conceal the tower. “The Hilton site is a good one, but [I consider it] a very high risk venture at this point.”
Board baffles bettors
The final vote played out like a stop on the World Poker Tour. Attendees were on the edge of their seat. Any hopes that Incline might withdraw its appeal and opt to come back in six months for another run at the project after the Vista site had been further vetted faded quickly as Flynn and Peterson went all in, hoping for a reversal of fortune.
Flop and turn cards played out rather predictably.
“It’s a commercial site, but it’s surrounded by residential. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush? The bird is in the wrong place,” Supervisor Larry Johnston concluded. “Shame on us if we don’t allow this and [the Vista] project falls through,” Supervisor Vikki Bauer remarked. Supervisor Byng Hunt said that for him it came down to location and the possibility of a viable alternative in a better location. “I’m hesitant to reverse a decision Planners considered very carefully.” Hazard spoke of Oasis, which has never even had landline service, and other outlying areas craving cell service, and lamented a lack of movement toward consensus. That made it 2-2
The river card vote came down to Supervisor Tim Hansen. “It’s inappropriate for Vista to present that project; it sandbags Incline Partners’ project. We have to judge [the Incline project] on its merits. I understand the importance; two-thirds of my district doesn’t have cell service.”
Then came the surprise.
“That said, the setback doesn’t change the height of the towers, but if one person’s property rights are violated, I can’t support it.” It was over, 2-3.
“That could be it,” Hazard assessed. “My fear is we may doom ourselves to no cell service.” Alex Millan, attending his very first public meeting, was more upbeat about the outcome. “There’s another option out there and it could be better and one that more of the community can get behind,” he summarized. “We waited this long, we can wait a little longer. Time to move on.”