Friday, January 28, 2011

Another loss and a tongue-lashing for T-Mobile

Neighbors win T-Mobile tower fight
'Cavalier attitude' toward Northridge residents cited.
By Tony Castro, Staff Writer
Posted: 01/27/2011 09:48:45 PM PST
Updated: 01/27/2011 09:50:12 PM PST

VAN NUYS - City officials Thursday dealt a death blow to a controversial cellular phone tower in Northridge and gave T-Mobile representatives a tongue-lashing over how the company treats residents.

The South Valley Area Planning Commission unanimously denied an appeal by T-Mobile of an earlier city zoning administrator's decision to block the tower.

Officials said they were swayed not only by the merits of the case against the tower, but also by what one commissioner said was T-Mobile representatives' "cavalier attitude."

Residents opposing the tower complained that T-Mobile's representatives had failed to faithfully work with them on finding an alternative site - a directive made by the commission to both sides at a Dec. 9 hearing.

Commission Vice President Gordon Murley said he did not accept a litany of excuses given by T-Mobile as to why other alternative sites were not viable and that the company could only build the tower at the originally proposed location.

"I would just say to any cellular that comes in here: Do your homework so we can support you," Murley said. "Don't come in and tell us you have a right to do it and that it's needed there without the proof presented."

Commissioners also chided T-Mobile representatives for trying to circumvent the residents' input by withholding an alternative design proposal until the hearing itself.

Residents complained that they were caught off-guard by the company's last-minute submission.

Hannah Lee, an assistant planning deputy for Councilman Greig Smith, whose district covers the affected neighborhood, told the hearing her office was opposing the T-Mobile appeal because it did not believe the company had seriously tried to work with the residents.

"(Smith) is not convinced (T-Mobile) tried to make a good faith effort," Lee said.

Commissioners said they would not take into consideration T-Mobile's last-minute design change submission because of its surprise nature.

The commission voted 4-0 to deny the appeal. One commissioner recused herself because she had been on maternity leave during the Dec. 9 hearing on the issue.

T-Mobile's only option for overturning the commission's decision is a lawsuit in the courts.

Two representatives for the T-Mobile contractor Synergy Development Services stormed out of the hearing and would not comment on the decision nor on the company's tactics.

Clark Harris, a T-Mobile spokesman who was reached by phone after the meeting, said the company would look for alternative sites in the area.

But residents were elated over the decision.

"This shows what can happen when you organize," said Irene Boyd, a board member of the Northridge South Neighborhood Council, which fought the application. "When you organize, you can win."

Clifton J. Burwell, the 82-year-old resident who spearheaded the opposition, called the decision a victory for the neighborhood in which he and wife Ginette have lived for 60 years.

"It's been worth what it took to win," he said.

Only last fall, these residents were celebrating what appeared to be a clear-cut defeat of T-Mobile's efforts to erect the tower in their neighborhood.

But they were caught off-guard when T-Mobile appealed the zoning administrator's denial of the application - something T-Mobile officials originally said they would not do.

Company officials said they changed their minds because they are obligated to improve service to San Fernando Valley customers.

"It is T-Mobile's standard practice to identify a site that both meets our coverage needs and follows all local ordinances and guidelines - this site accomplishes both," said T-Mobile spokesman Jarryd Gonzales.

"The residents of Northridge will benefit greatly from the improved wireless coverage provided by this new wireless facility."

T-Mobile had proposed building the cell tower on top of an existing commercial structure at the intersection of Saticoy Street and Louise Avenue.

Residents complained that erecting a 10-foot high tower on the roof of a second story building at the intersection would create an eyesore, destroy property values and pose a health threat from radiation emitted from the powerful signals.

At the hearing, several residents raised concern for the safety of children in a preschool nearby.

State and local governments are prevented by the 1996 Telecommunications Act from considering health concerns in locating wireless facilities. But Commissioner Lydia Drew Mather said it was a concern for the preschool children that was her uppermost reason for denying the T-Mobile appeal.

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

In her denial of T-Mobile's application, the zoning administrator listed other reasons for her decision including:

The location is not proper in relation to adjacent uses or the development of the community.

The use will be materially detrimental to the character of the development in the immediate neighborhood.

The proposed location will not be in harmony with the various elements and objective of the General Plan.

The project is inconsistent with the general requirements of the Wireless Telecommunications Facilities Standards set forth in Section 12.21-A.20 of the Municipal Code.

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 the Saticoy and Louis location with applications pending for eight others.

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