Editor’s Note: In the print version of this story it stated that the next public hearing for the cell tower had tentatively been scheduled for Sept. 17. The date has formally been set for Sept. 25, noon at Fire Station #1 on Main Street in Mammoth.
Does Mammoth need another cell tower? AT&T thinks so; in fact, the company thinks the four square mile town needs three more in addition to the five already established.
On Tuesday, a request from the cell phone company to place a 45-foot tall monopine cell tower on the grounds of Mammoth Lakes Fire Station #2 came before the Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District Board of Commissioners. In addition to an antenna on top of the Shilo Inn, which was discussed at the Aug. 14 Mammoth Lakes Planning and Economic Development Commission, as well as a new site on Mammoth Mountain, the cell phone company would like to use MLFD’s land for a third build site.
According to Mike Scheckner, a contractor for AT&T who would serve as the Construction Manager for the project if it’s given the green light, there have been a lot of complaints from AT&T customers about the service in the area around Station #2, which sits on Old Mammoth Rd. across the street from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on one side and Snowcreek Athletic Club on the other.
But, as one member of the public pointed out, Mammoth is a small mountain town. Does it really need perfect cell phone coverage, 24/7?
“Perhaps my call gets dropped during busy times of year,” the woman said. “I can call the person back a minute or two later. It’s not like we’re living in New York City where a client needs to be spoken to at that very second.”
The monopine would be placed at the very front of Station #2 in the island that butts up to Old Mammoth Road.
“The antennas are well hidden, but you can see them,” Scheckner said of the design. The location would be front and center for anyone driving on that section of the road, i.e. people traveling to and from Old Mammoth or to the gym.
Since MLFD is the property owner, it must give the initial yes or no to AT&T for the project. If it were to clear MLFD, however, the project would still need to go before the Planning Commission for CEQA and the Town Council for the final blessing.
“Why our parking lot?” asked Commissioner Jeff Boucher.
Scheckner explained that AT&T had looked at several other locations, including the roof of the athletic club, but had been denied elsewhere and was running out of options.
One resident asked what AT&T would do if MLFD denied the current spot in question, as well.
“Will you keeping looking?” she asked.
“I’m not gonna lie to you,” Scheckner said. “AT&T will try to squeeze blood out of a turnip and get as many towers here as possible. The nice thing is all you have to do is say no.”
While AT&T would lease the land from MLFD for about $1,500 per month, the Commissioners did not see this as an incentive for pushing the project forward.
“$1,500 a month is chicken feed for our budget,” Boucher said.
“What we really have to determine is whether it’s worth it in cell service to the area,” said Fire Chief Brent Harper. “It’s more about public service than our budget.”
A main concern was the effect of the tower’s transmission on people living in the area and on firefighters themselves.
“We currently don’t staff Station #2, but chronic exposure numbers need to be reviewed [in case they ever do],” said Assistant Chief Frank Frievalt.
Scheckner said he could get that information and make all of the information regarding the frequencies transmitted, available. He added that the tower would use a new kind of antenna, which makes the transmission “a touch” less than other towers.
“It wouldn’t be any more than any other cell site in Mammoth now,” he added. “You would have to go up to the antenna to really be affected by the transmissions. For all intensive purposes you need to be in the direct line of sight of the antenna.”
Fire Marshal Thom Heller pointed out that AT&T would have to identify the beam path direction on the roof of the fire station so not only the firefighters but also anyone up there shoveling snow would be able to clearly see the beam direction.
“The human body is not designed to deal with this form of radiation,” Heller said. He pointed out that a lot of cell towers have been put at fire station properties.
The problem is “firefighters are already exposed to a whole gamut of radiation, so how do you differentiate?” he said.
Another question was whether or not another provider could also use the antenna. While Scheckner said there would be enough capacity on the tower for one other provider, Frievalt explained that he had written in MLFD’s review comments that one term of approval would need to be that another carrier could not use the tower unless approved by MLFD.
Commissioner Tony Colasardo was concerned about all of these towers popping up randomly in the coming years and wanted to see a master plan of the towers being put in and how they connect. He also wanted to see the potential areas for future towers.
“We need to discuss the long-term effects,” Colasardo said. “And we need a little more concrete programming.”
Scheckner, however, said that the goal for AT&T was to get this tower up and built this year before the snow falls.
“I’m uncomfortable with the timeline of the end of the year,” commented Mammoth local Rich McAteer, who was in the audience. “You can also move to disapprove and stop this from going any further.”
The Commission wasn’t ready to make a decision on Tuesday; “there are too many questions to approve this today,” Colasardo said. The Commission will hold another public hearing at its September meeting, which has been set for Sept. 25.