Cities divided over cellphone towers
Residents who live near Tustin's Cedar Grove Park are determined to fight.
They've been battling a proposed T-Mobile cellphone tower in the park since October 2010. They've staged protests, held meetings and made their case to the City Council.
As people rely more on wireless networks, carriers are trying to meet the need by installing more wireless equipment, often hidden inside fake trees or tall buildings, but some residents and cities still aren't satisfied.
Now the Cedar Grove Park issue has gone to the courts, with T-Mobile and the city of Tustin involved in a lawsuit after the City Council denied the project in November.
In Huntington Beach, residents are fighting a similar legal battle after its City Council in January denied T-Mobile's request to build a wireless tower on Springdale Street.
Litigation trends involving cell towers have been fairly consistent, said Robert Jystad, vice president of the California Wireless Association, which represents wireless companies in the state.
Some cities have cited health concerns about the towers, but the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits cities from denying wireless facilities based on health concerns. Radio frequency waves emitted by the towers must remain within guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission.
Instead, communities are increasingly expressing concerns about aesthetic problems, property values and location.
Better coverage is necessary as more people use cellphones and tablets as their primary means of communication. And there's a financial incentive, too. Cities are struggling in a down economy and the towers can put dollars back into city coffers.
"There have been a lot of lawsuits across the country, but there have been a lot of cell sites where it hasn't been disputed," Jystad said.
Many sites have been installed in Orange County with little or no fuss, such as the MetroPCS move into Tustin Sports Park, which has been home to wireless facilities since 1996. In Villa Park, officials in July approved Verizon's plan to hide antennae in the town center façade.
And in Irvine, not far from Cedar Grove Park, the Orange County Fire Authority approved a tower that can hold equipment for up to five carriers, said OCFA spokesman Marc Stone.
In Huntington Beach, residents were concerned about potential health effects and environmental impacts at Bolsa Chica Wetlands, near the proposed cell site on Springdale Street. Had the City Council approved the site, litigation would have ended.
Cell towers have sparked protests in Huntington Beach since 2009, when towers were proposed for Harbour View Park and Bolsa View Park. When the council revoked the permits in response to the public outcry, T-Mobile sued, saying the city had broken its contract.
A judge ruled the city had acted legally, holding a public hearing and revoking the building permits.
The company filed another lawsuit in September 2010, after Huntington Beach revoked the permit for the tower at Bolsa View Park.
Nina Lee, her husband, Kenneth, and neighbors rallied against a proposed Verizon Wireless facility in their Orange neighborhood at Esplanade and Fairhaven avenues. They focused on aesthetics and property values, and cited a 2006 decision by the City Council rejecting cell towers in residential areas.
"Behind the concern are health risks, but we can't bring that out yet," Lee said.
Save Cedar Grove Park members are using similar tactics.
"Most cities know they can't base denial expressly on (health) grounds, so what they do is try to come up with alternative grounds for denying the sties. But fundamentally they are motivated or seem to be motivated by the residents' anxieties about the alleged health effects of the sites," Jystad said.
The California Wireless Association is working to share information about the safety of the cell sites, Jystad said, citing World Health Organization and Federal Communications Commission reports.
Wireless towers, Jystad said, are important to public safety.
"I think a lot of people don't recognize the significant role they play in personal accidents when someone uses a cellphone for 911. There's a large percentage of 911 calls made using wireless phones as well as the use of the technology by first responders," he said.
Tustin Councilman Al Murray cited safety concerns when he and Councilman Jerry Amante voted in favor of the Cedar Grove Park site, but lost the 3-2 vote.
"It may be a matter of life or death," he said in November. "It's not a matter of if it's going to happen. It's a matter of when."
Cellphone carriers base tower locations on a variety of factors. Some cities, such as Tustin, created a wireless plan mapping where towers can be installed. In other areas, companies choose locations based on need.
"It's a complicated set of factors but the primary factor is because they've done an analysis of the operation of the network and they need to find locations that will improve service quality the most efficiently so they don't want to put antennas right on top of each other. They like to have them evenly distributed as best they can in an area," Jystad said.
And the phone companies must find someone willing to lease the land, he said.
Open space is often not ideal because wireless towers need access to power, telephone lines and access roads, and there may be environmental issues as well, Jystad said.
Protesters are questioning what they see as a contradiction: T-Mobile's website shows moderate to excellent coverage in Tustin and Huntington Beach, yet the company says better coverage is needed.
Jystad said information on carrier websites can come from marketing data, not from the engineering side.
Save Cedar Grove Park organizer Brandon Key said he'd prefer T-Mobile place the tower at the Orange County Fire Authority, where space for five carriers was approved in March 2011. That tower is expected to be up by the summer.
The OCFA tower will be disguised as a 67-foot eucalyptus tree near a row of 90-foot eucalyptus trees behind a training center near the 261 freeway, said Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion.
"We want good cell service, but here's an adequate alternative just yards away that can serve everybody's needs," Key said.
T-Mobile has proposed building antennas into three 40- and 43-foot-tall flagpoles in the parking lot at Cedar Grove Park, replacing two existing 26-foot-tall flagpoles. An earlier design included a 65-foot-tall fake tree.
Though the city Planning Commission approved the plan in May 2011, the decision was reversed by Tustin City Council members in November 2011.
"We're not against technology. We're against marring the beauty of our park with these stupid towers," Key said.
There's financial incentive for hosting a cell site. If the Tustin council had approved the contract, the city would have made $259,332 in the first 10 years.
Community groups also are spending time and funds.
"We put our lives on hold for two months and all we did was live, eat, drink, cell tower," Lee said. "I don't think we're the same people after going through that."
The battle isn't over for Save Cedar Grove Park, says organizer Sharon Komorous.
"We're funded and we're ready to go and we're ready to keep fighting this," she said.