Wednesday, May 28, 2014

To tree, or not to tree: That remains the question

After an uneventful opening, tonight's city council meeting[1] became wholly focused on the decision of whether to allow a faux-tree cell tower to be installed next to a water tower in north Valencia. Despite hours of testimony and debate, the council decided to continue this public hearing to a date uncertain. However, they made it clear that it is their intention to deny the project unless a much more compelling case establishing need for the tree-disguised cell tower ("monoeucalyptus") can be made. It was a polarizing issue: those who lived in the effected neighborhoods cared deeply, and those who lived elsewhere cared not a whit. Indeed, unless you're passionate about contemplating the place of artificial eucalyptus in the Claritan landscape, this meeting definitely fell into the category of can-miss.

Front Matter

Councilmember TimBen Boydston delivered tonight's invocation. He recalled the Memorial Day ceremony he attended on Monday, and he read from a Memorial Day prayer, ending with his usual entreaty that God bless Santa Clarita. The flag salute came next, and the cub scout troop which led it was applauded for doing so--is this something we do now?

The scouts didn't get to sit down for long, as they were soon called forward to be recognized for building some nesting boxes for Barn Owls[2]. Then recognitions moved from owls to tumors as Mayor Weste declared June 1 to be Cancer Survivors Day, acknowledge the American Cancer Society's recent Relay for Life effort and several local groups fighting cancer in the SCV.

A meeting without Public Participation is scarcely a meeting at all; luckily, the regulars were around to provide comments. Alan Ferdman encouraged all residents to submit their Proposition 218 protest letter against hikes in sanitation bills to cover chloride cleanup costs. He said that the City had not made an effort to adequately inform citizens and that the protest procedures were not as straightforward as they could be. Cam Noltemeyer echoed his sentiments, and she challenged Councilmember Dante Acosta to oppose the sanitation rate increase on the grounds of his campaign statement that he "fought the chloride tax scam." The most interesting comments of the night, however, came from Saugus journalism student Sarah Farnell. She said teens are unconstitutionally subject to and targeted for violating curfew laws. She said the ACLU has been involved in many cases regarding teen curfew laws and said that they have no place in Santa Clarita.

After public comments, City Manager Ken Striplin responded. He said the Prop. 218 process is dictated by state law, so there's little different they could do.  He said the curfew law, in place since 1997, was intended to protect youth, and both he and City Attorney Joe Montes said that they didn't have knowledge that nighttime curfew enforcement was unconstitutional. To be more precise, Montes said he didn't really know the exact answer as to whether it was unconstitutional as he hasn't reviewed current cases in that area, but he suspected there might be differences between allowing daytime and nighttime curfew enforcement.

Following this foray into the realm of citizen concerns, Councilmember updates were the usual mix of events, reminders, and reports. However, Councilmember Dante Acosta got personal during his comments, remembering his son, Rudy, who died while in the armed services. He said this has forever changed the meaning of Memorial Day for his family. Everything else seemed trite by comparison. For example, Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean and Councilmember Bob Kellar spent a while arguing about the appropriateness of viewing plans for proposed projects ( a hotel in the case of tonight's argument, if I remember correctly). McLean said it's their job to keep an eye on aesthetics in Santa Clarita to make sure things meet "a certain standard." Kellar told her she was asking to review the building project at a stage where councilmembers normally don't, and she was heading down a slippery slope of micro-managing development in the SCV. Their standoff was, perhaps, a bit more tense than it might have been because of the shaky place they left their relationship last week, when Kellar voted to give Danta Acosta the SCAG appointment long-held and deeply valued by Marsha McLean.

Consent Calendar

There wasn't much on the Consent Calendar. There was a contract for janitorial supplies, a final adoption of the revisions to the Old Town Newhall Specific Plan discussed at the last meeting, and the usual housekeeping items. All items passed with the recommended actions and without discussion.

Mixed Signals

For the better part of a year, AT&T has been trying to get clearance to build a cell tower (disguised as a eucalyptus tree, a "monoeucalyptus" in their jargon) in North Valencia--we're talking Decoro/Helmers/that-general-area. And during that same period, residents have been talking about what an unsightly monstrosity the cell tower will be. The Santa Clarita Planning Commission has given AT&T the OK twice--once after the initial application process, and once after a nearby resident appealed the approval. Tonight was the City Council's chance to weigh in on the Planning Commission's decision to deny the resident's appeal, thereby letting the tower be built.

Discussion of this item dragged on for hours, and many more hours of discussion lie ahead in future meeting(s), so I'll stick to a few of the highlights.

Representatives from AT&T were in the odd position of having to argue they weren't giving customers sufficient coverage and that they needed to install a new cell tower to fill a significant service gap. The faux eucalyptus tree cell tower would be placed next to an existing 50' water tower and a stand of real trees, so they claimed it would be relatively unobtrusive, and the placement on a hill would allow them to provide coverage over a considerable area. The crux of the presentation seemed to be that there were up to 16 potential sites, but this site was vastly better than the other options for a number of reasons.

The appellant spoke next. The main argument against approval of the cell tower was that it would diminish property values. Monoeucalyptuses are ugly, plain and simple: "Plastic trees do not have a place in Santa Clarita's residential landscape." There were also suggestions that AT&T hadn't really contacted the owners of all of the other potential cell tower location sites, that service in the area was already adequate, and that AT&T's narrative and statements had changed throughout the approval process. There was an entertaining (in a way) video of a woman making calls throughout the alleged service gap region. She could make and receive calls without any issues, it seemed. Once the appellant's time was up, Councilmember Bob Kellar asked "What's the benefit to AT&T misleading [the City of Santa Clarita]?" It was a valid question--why do anything but build the most efficient infrastructure?--and there was no real answer. In any case, thunderous applause followed the presentation.

Public comments were overwhelmingly against the cell tower. People were upset that AT&T had so frequently changed its story; a little kid named Nathan said that lying's wrong and the company shouldn't be rewarded. Others worried that one tower might make it easier for more towers to be installed in the area. More than one person mentioned fears of radiation from the towers, though the City couldn't legally reject a tower installation on those grounds, according to the City Attorney Montes. One woman claimed that AT&T told residents that they'd simply find a new spot for a tower if this site didn't work out, so rejection of the proposal wasn't a huge loss for the company. Another said she'd rather have owl boxes than cell towers, and everyone laughed (Mayor Weste said "That was a good one!")--except for the box-building cub scouts, who had wisely left the room by this hour.
A very few did speak in favor of the tower, noting that their phone and data service could be less than optimal in the area. After all of the comments, the public hearing was finally closed, and the council began deliberation.

The City Attorney suggested that the city council weigh the proposal's compliance with local ordinances as their first step in approving/rejecting the appeal. He said considerations about federal laws would be the next step. This was the start of many long, confusing conversations between attorney and council. The main causes for confusion: (1)Ability to reject project without violating local/federal laws that afford telecommunications companies certain rights and protections, (2)Whether there was/wasn't a significant service gap, and how to legally handle conflicting information to this effect, and (3)What the council could legally do that evening, since it couldn't deny the application outright.

While everyone spoke a fair bit, Councilmember Acosta was notably vociferous. This was his first demonstration of really delving into an issue, asking questions, and providing direction. His style was, at times, ambivalent. He recognized the need for and value of better service, but his ears had been sympathetic to the residents' pleas. He got most worked up over AT&T's inability to answer a simple question about who they spoke to at a proposed alternative tower site. It was truly sloppy on the applicants' part to not have all of these details available, especially since they hinged their case on all alternative sites being unsuitable or unwilling to accommodate the towers. Things were made worse when Acosta talked about the distinctions between AT&T and Crown Castle, a major corporation which builds and operates cell tower infrastructure, asking how the project was framed when presented to owners of the alternative sites. (I'm just referring to the applicant as AT&T to keep things simple, but note that it is a more complex case of ownership/operation). Acosta would also mention his doubts that noise studies during summer are valid (AC units may raise ambient noise levels such that the noise from a tower wouldn't be as notable as it would be during AC-free winters). He spoke so much that Councilmember TimBen Boydston said, jokingly, "You spent quite a bit of time on that, and that can be troublesome for you here," hinting at how Councilmember Bob Kellar has often criticized Boydston for speaking too much.

McLean said that conflicting information on the coverage gap, conflicting information on the availability and suitability of alternative sites, aesthetic concerns, and noise concerns meant she would be unable to make a decision that night. Kellar actually spoke directly to the applicant, telling them the item would be continued and asking they get their facts straight for the next meeting (Kellar was sympathetic to the need for the tower, and said it was worth the likely small impact it would have on the community; he quite correctly pointed out that there was a giant water tower on top of the hill anyways, so a cell tower wouldn't be besmirching an otherwise pristine view). Everyone seemed to know that this hearing was going to be continued to another meeting, but it took a while to get this foregone conclusion to a vote.

The motion slowly took shape. The public hearing would be re-opened, there would be time for the applicant to address questions and present more information, and staff would prepare a recommendation should the council wish to vote for denial of the project. This wasn't available at the current meeting, so those who wished to deny it outright could not. Everyone but Kellar voted in favor of the motion. What does this mean for AT&T? They have to have everything in order by next meeting or they'll have to start from scratch. And given the tone of Acosta, Boydston, and McLean, I think there are three councilmembers more than willing to have their votes back up the threat. The meeting ended shortly after 11.

[1]May I offer you the agenda?
[2]According to Mayor Laurene Weste, Barn Owls and Great Horned Owls are the two species of owls living in Santa Clarita. I believe the Spotted, Northern Saw-whet, Western Screech-, Northern Pygmy-, Short-eared, Long-eared, and possibly Flammulated and Burrowing Owls that hang out in Santa Clarita would beg to differ.

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