Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Article about residents beating T-Mobile

You can beat City Hall and Big Brother, even if you're new to the game.

That's how a group of Northridge residents feel after persuading the city to reject an application by T-Mobile to erect a cellular tower at Saticoy Street and Louise Avenue.

"It was David going against Goliath - it's really what it was, and David won," said Clifton J. Burwell, 82, who spearheaded the opposition. "It was people power."

While T-Mobile has had other setbacks in the San Fernando Valley, what makes this decision unusual is how the corporate giant with its vast resources was beaten by a campaign led by a politically unconnected octogenarian couple and an upstart neighborhood council.

Burwell and his wife Ginette, 80, organized local opposition to the plan last summer at a time when the Northridge South Neighborhood Council was still without a board of directors.

The Burwells sometimes worked until 11 p.m. getting more than 100 neighbors to sign petitions opposing the tower.

"The reason we succeeded was the hard work the Burwells did," said Irene Boyd, a board member of the Northridge South Neighborhood Council. "This is a terrific example of what the power of the people, properly exercised, can accomplish."

Most importantly, though, may have been the long hours Burwell spent at the city's Planning Department examining documents and maps presented by T-Mobile - and finding significant discrepancies he used to discredit the company's application.

"They presented maps showing areas of the Valley where they said they didn't have coverage and didn't show towers that they actually had," said Burwell. "Their maps weren't accurate, and their work was really sloppy.

"The zoning administrator who turned down the application obviously agreed with us."

The local triumph has given renewed hope to groups fighting proposed T-Mobile towers in other Valley communities who feel the area is already saturated with cell transmitters.

According to the city zoning administrator's report denying the T-Mobile request, no fewer than 224 such towers presently exist within a four-mile radius of Saticoy and Louise, with applications pending for eight others.

Those towers belong to various cell phone service providers. Increasingly, T-Mobile has been the most active and therefore finds itself at the center of most of the neighborhood disputes.

"The simple answer for that is we're really the (cell service provider) doing an extensive build-up right now," said T-Mobile spokesman Clark Harris. "We're at a stage where we're trying to support our infrastructure and (improve) coverage within the San Fernando Valley."

Perhaps the most poignant image of those cell tower wars is T-Mobile's 45-foot transmitter tower that went up in flames last summer in the parking lot of St. Peter Armenian Church in Lake Balboa. That fire is still under investigation, but the incident looms large over the cell tower landscape.

Harris said it is the overriding reason that his company will not appeal the denial of its application to build at Saticoy and Louise.

"There's a lot of fear among the residents that a tower there would also burn down," Harris said of concerns voiced by residents.

In denying the T-Mobile building request at Saticoy and Louise, city Zoning Administrator Maya E. Zaitzevsky cited - among other determining factors - the company's proposed location "will not be desirable to the public convenience or welfare."

The latest local neighborhood uprising against T-Mobile involves a request for a conditional-use permit to erect a tower atop the upscale Fairwinds retirement resort at 8138 Woodlake Ave., West Hills.

A zoning commission hearing was held on that application Wednesday where members of the community group opposing the application came armed with information amassed from two neighborhoods that have recently won victories over T-Mobile.

Linda Thorne, a leader of the West Hills opposition group, was on the phone Monday with Burwell getting tips on fighting T-Mobile's request to erect a 70-foot-plus cell tower on top of the retirement home, which she said already sits on a 120-foot-high hill.

"It looks like they have found the key that unlocks beating T-Mobile," said Thorne, who lives near the proposed cell tower location.

Thorne's neighbors also have been consulting with a Sherman Oaks homeowners group that in August overturned a conditional-use permit granted for a T-Mobile transmitter in the 15200 block of Burbank Boulevard.

"The reason we were successful was community involvement," said Alexander Kasendorf, president of the homeowners association. "The secret is to get as many people who would be impacted involved in the process.

"Get them out to the meetings on the issue and have them voice their opinion in numbers. It will give city officials and zoning administrators a better understanding of how the community feels as opposed to whether just the (cell tower transmitter) application guidelines are followed."

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