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Planners grapple with
communications antennas

By Bruce Robinson

BRACE YOURSELF. The second wave of telecommunications antennas is heading this way. From Sebastopol's English Hill to Rincon Valley, Sonoma County has become an uneasy host to the proliferation of cellular telephone technology. By the time the county adopted a new policy governing the locating and permitting of new telecommunications facilities last summer, there were more than 50 cellular phone antenna sites already in place across Sonoma County, from remote hilltops to the roofs of high-profile buildings. That was the first wave of the new technology.

The second is about to break.

"By and large, the cellular telephone network is pretty mature," says Greg Carr, the senior planner for the county who drafted the new policy. "But the PCS [personal communications systems] is the newest wave of the service, and it's the one that is generating most of the applications at this point."

How many applications are coming? No one has a clear sense of that yet, not even the industry itself. Unlike the first wave of cellular service, PCS signals are entirely digital. Among other things, that means that they take up less bandwidth, which in turn does not require installations as large as typical cellular antennas. Unlike cellular, however, PCS does need to maintain line-of-sight transmission points, which usually means more relay stations positioned closer to one another.

A standard PCS antenna is about six inches wide and three feet tall, explains Pacific Bell spokesman Eric Johnson, and can "see" a range of 120 degrees. With three antennas mounted on a single pole, that site can send and receive in all directions. But in urban areas, Johnson says, the three antennas can sometimes be separated and disguised, so that they are less noticeable. "What PCS provides is the ability to camouflage, to place them in such a way that they're not noticeable," he explains.

This camouflage often includes placing the antennas on the sides of existing structures, which can be anything from billboards to church steeples. In one case, Johnson says, the antenna was attached to the side of a building and covered with stucco to mask it.

However, the first public debate over this new technology in Sonoma County centered on a tower that will remain clearly visible, much to the distress of neighboring property owners. The 48-foot tower, to be erected on Pac Bell­owned property surrounded by homes, will stand between Ed Sherman and his view of Annadel Park. Even though that is shorter than the 65-foot tower that was first proposed, Sherman contends the Santa Rosa City Council failed to impose adequate conditions to screen the tower.

"I was very disappointed that the City Council didn't want to listen to the neighborhood," Sherman says. "We pointed out several times that there's an existing law on the books that covers existing antennas and how they affect the neighborhoods. It says in black and white, here are the conditions you have to meet in terms of screening something. And they don't want to even enforce their own laws."

Sherman has lobbied, so far unsuccessfully, to have the antenna installation disguised as an artificial tree, something that has already been done once elsewhere in Sonoma County.

That installation, on a ridgetop overlooking Highway 101 south of Petaluma, is 40 feet tall and has been an effective deception, according to dairy rancher Jerry Corda, on whose land the fake tree stands. "It blends in fairly well with the landscape. For the commuters going through, it's a little taller-looking tree is all," Corda says. "From a distance I don't think you would really know unless you looked with field glasses or a scope or something."

But there are strong disincentives for the industry to plant these kinds of false trees, says Dave Hardy, a Santa Rosa planning consultant who works with GTE MobileNet on antenna applications. "They are 10 times more expensive [than conventional antennas] and they take a long time to get shipped," Hardy explains. GTE has had its first fake tree approved for a site in another county, "and they're waiting six months for it, whereas most of the other towers are available within weeks or a month."

Despite those drawbacks, "it can be an effective measure," Hardy says, "but can also be a poor imitation of a tree."

As local cities scramble to adopt their own policies and ordinances governing antennas, the focus is likely to move from location to mitigation measures such as the false trees or "co-location," in which several carriers install antennas on a shared pole.

Healdsburg planning director Richard Spitler notes that the state Public Utilities Commission's General Order 159 gives the PUC authority to override local planning decisions if a phone company application for an antenna site is repeatedly denied. "The purpose is to make sure that a major carrier isn't held up, either procedurally or by conditions that are so costly they can't reasonably provide the service at the time or cost they need," Spitler explains. "You can't just keep denying these things and hope they will go away, because they won't."

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From the Dec. 26, 1996 - Jan. 1, 1997 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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