By Debra Moore
The Portola City Council is set to decide the fate of a proposed 133-foot Verizon cell tower during an appeal hearing scheduled for Monday, Oct. 26, at 6 p.m.
If a decision is made, it will come one year and one month after Verizon submitted its application to the city on Sept. 26, 2019. A public hearing was originally held Dec. 4, 2019, but was continued so more information could be obtained.
Specifically, City Manager Lauren Knox, who, in the absence of a planning commission serves as the hearing officer and issues the decision, wanted more information on radio frequency (RF) emissions. During an interview Oct. 23, Knox said that the public hearing was continued, but due to coronavirus and other issues, it wasn’t held until Aug. 27. She said at that time, an engineer joined the discussion and provided a “wealth of information” that made her comfortable with issuing the permit on Sept. 1.
Three people have appealed that decision, thus the need for Monday night’s hearing. Two of the appellants cite health reasons for their appeals maintaining that the “Electromagnetic Field (EMF) emitting equipment and devices (such as Wi-Fi, cell phones, cell towers, AMI/ AMR/ digital/ Smart Meters)” adversely impact their health.
The third appellant, Josh Hart, also cites health issues, but adds a list of other concerns affecting public safety including: the impact on helicopters attempting to land at the hospital, as well as the impact frequencies have on helicopters; fire risk; and a possible infringement on the hospital’s expansion plans. He also cited impacts on habitat and wildlife; whether there was a demonstrable need for the tower; and other factors.
The three appellants are prepared to share data and studies that support their health concerns.
As for the concerns about the hospital and helicopters, surprisingly, Care Flight, just became aware of the issue. Matt Brown, Care Flight Operations Manager, said that his organization is studying the situation. “We just found out about it and are collecting data to see if it poses a threat,” he said Oct. 23. “The safety of the crew and our patients is our priority.”
Brown said they have run into similar situations in other locations and sometimes mitigations are possible — such as installing lights as was done on a tower in Lovelock, Nevada. He said that the FAA has strict regulations to follow.
Knox said those regulations were taken into consideration when she issued the notice of a conditional permit. Cell towers of 60 feet are allowed within the city limits, but the conditional use permit was required due to the height of the proposed tower — 133 feet — to get above the tree line.
As for Eastern Plumas Health Care, CEO Doug McCoy said that the cell tower project presents several issues that have been considered. On the one hand the tower presents an opportunity for better connectivity which is needed during the pandemic as the hospital and its clinics are offering more telemedicine services. “Unfortunately access to fiberoptic cabling is cost prohibitive or unavailable to many community residents currently, so improved wireless options would be beneficial,” McCoy said.
But on the other hand, “We want to ensure that the proposed tower does not present any significant safety risks to the hospital and/or helicopter services. We are looking to the experts from Care Flight, Plumas Fire, and the City of Portola for their input and assessment of safety considerations given the proximity of the tower to our campus. We will continue to work closely with these agencies and support an alternate site if the findings indicate a significant risk.”
Previous to McCoy, Acting Chief Executive Officer Jayne O’Flanagan sent a letter asking that the city deny the permit, until it passed an ordinance regarding cell tower placement be “sensitive to the location of schools, hospitals, child care providers and neighborhoods.”
One of the city council members, Stan Peiler, is employed by Eastern Plumas Health Care and has recused himself from the appeal hearing because the hospital has discussed the matter. Another city councilman, Phil Oels, is required to recuse himself by the FPPC because he lives within 1,000 feet of the proposed tower site, and can’t prove that it won’t impact his property values.
That leaves the three remaining council members: Tom Cooley, Bill Powers and Pat Morton to conduct the hearing and render a decision.
Though the Oct. 26 hearing is to hear three appeals, Knox told the council that it is in essence a new public hearing: “Each appeal is considered to be a de novo hearing on the matter being appealed. (PMC 17.91.070). Essentially, this means that the City Council will consider all issues as if the application for the Conditional Use Permit was being heard for the first time, i.e. – as if it had not been previously heard and decided. However, the City Council may consider all the testimony, evidence and other material that is in the record that was considered by the City Manager and it may consider new testimony, evidence and other materials presented at the Public Hearing.”
She also told the council that they have options: they could uphold the permit; uphold but modify it; grant the appeal and reverse her notice of determination; refer the matter back to her, the hearing officer; or add or subtract modifications.
The tower is slated to go on the corner of 2nd Street and Grove Avenue in an area that is zoned commercial mixed use. Though it has been referred to as a 5G tower, Knox that said while it could have that potential, it currently wouldn’t have that ability.
How to participate
The City Council meeting is accessible to the public by phone at: 1-669-900-6833; Meeting ID: 358 306 7836. To mute or unmute your phone during the telephonic Zoom meeting press *6.
Public comment will be accepted via email or chat on any item on the agenda at any time beginning at 6 p.m. and ending at the close of public comment on the item. Please direct your comments to Tara Kindall, Deputy City Clerk,[email protected] or access the chat function on the Zoom meeting platform during the live stream. Members of the public may submit their comments in writing to be included in the public record.
Dec. 5, 2019 public hearing
This information was originally written by Staff Writer Lauren Westmoreland following the Dec. 4 public hearing. It is being included here to provide a good background as to what transpired.
The city of Portola held a public hearing to discuss a request for a conditional use permit on behalf of Verizon, with Verizon seeking the permit to allow for increased height of the construction of a proposed 133-foot tall monopine antenna on the northeast corner of S. Second Street and Grove Avenue, adjacent to the cemetery.
The hearing, held Wednesday, Dec. 4, focused on the specifics of the request, mainly the request for a height variance above and beyond the current city height regulations of 60 feet.
Contract City Planner Karen Downs opened the hearing with an explanation that due to there not being a full quorum on the Portola Planning Commission, the city manager would be taking the position of responsibility as the approving authority.
The applicant, Kristina Demolli, specialist professional services with the Verizon Consumer Group, was in attendance to answer questions specific to the request, along with property owner Edward Laurie.
The city received an application for the tower in September, Downs said, and went on to explain that the proposed increase in height was due to Verizon’s stated need of exceeding the surrounding trees in height.
The equipment associated with the 133-foot tower includes nine new 8-foot tall panel antennas, nine new remote radio units, or RRUs, two raycaps, two microwave antennas, a 20-KW generator with a 96-gallon diesel tank, high metal ice shield structure, and other outdoor equipment within a fenced 40-foot-by-40 area with chain link, slats and barbed wire.
The proposed project meets the setbacks of the city commercial mixed area code, and Downs noted that neither the general plan nor the city’s zoning ordinance specifically addresses cellular towers, but she noted that it does include that communication facilities are essential to economic development for Portola and will enhance the quality of life if communication is available, adequate and convenient for all residents and businesses.
According to the staff reports provided, the proposed project has been determined to be exempt from environmental review under CEQA guidelines, and that the applicant had submitted a Radio Frequency Emissions Compliance Report.
Downs noted that in the application submitted for the tower, Verizon stated that the need for the tower was that there was a need for better reception and better access.
Downs said the first of three staff findings was that the proposed use was consistent with the city’s general plan. “The proposed cell tower does not interfere with or conflict with the purposes of the general plan,” Downs said.
The second finding to be made was that the proposed use, or development, conforms to all applicable standards and requirements of the title.
Downs then reiterated that the hearing was only to discuss the conditional use permit for the height variance, not for the placement of the tower itself, as the proposed project meets all setbacks, permitted uses and proposed draft conditions set forth by the city.
Some of the proposed conditions include the request for a “stealth” antenna, as well as a smaller footprint.
The third item listed states that the proposed cellular tower will not create conditions that are materially detrimental to the public health, safety and general welfare.
“The facility will provide enhanced communication services to the surrounding area, including emergency and public safety communications,” Downs read.
The meeting then opened for questions about the presentation directed toward Downs, with local Josh Hart, of the group Plumas Residents for Safer Telecommunications, stepping up first.
Hart asked, “Will the fall zone of this tower impact the neighbors? Is there an adequate setback, and is this consistent with what Plumas County requires in their ordinance?”
Downs responded that first, the city of Portola is independent of the county’s jurisdiction in this regard, and so the Plumas County ordinance would not apply.
This was followed by a question from local April Harston regarding the fire clearance and allowances around the proposed project site, with Downs responding that there were proposed conditions for approval in place for fire clearance and safety, adding, “We are always happy to look again at the conditions to make a project better and more safe for everyone.”
Harston also asked what incentives went to the city, and for the landowner. Downs responded that for the city, there would be no incentive. For the landowner, there is a private lease agreement in place.
“If the height of this tower was 60 feet, there would be no conversation right now,” Downs said. “The permit is just for the antenna’s increase in height.”
Kristina Demolli then noted that the Verizon site at Beckwourth Peak is currently overloaded, and the new tower would be placed in order to offload traffic, with the goal to increase coverage for the entire city.
Hart and Harston asked if there were any proof of the alleged substantial complaints of poor coverage in the Portola area.
Gail McGrath then stepped forward to state that it used to be true that coverage was spotty in the area, but that in recent years, since the addition of the tower on Beckwourth Peak, she felt the coverage was excellent.
“I really feel like this is going to open up a can of worms that Portola doesn’t want,” McGrath said. “This can bring so many issues, and I feel everything should be up on the peak, away from the public.”
McGrath went on to state that she feels that Portola needs to become cognizant to the aesthetics of keeping Portola nice, a sentiment met with a round of applause from the room filled with concerned citizens.
“If the height of this tower was 60 feet, there would be no conversation right now. … The permit is just for the antenna’s increase in height.”
Contract City Planner
City of Portola
Another resident, Holly Johnson, spoke of her concern of the proximity of the tower to Eastern Plumas Health Care, saying, “People are there to get well, and work there around sick people anyway, and then you add in the effects of microwaves right there on them. I don’t want it everywhere I go, so it’s kind of nice being in a mountain town with clean, fresh air.”
Downs explained that per state law, notice of the project was mailed to a 300-foot radius, posted in three places, as well as in the newspaper.
Another local woman asked if there was any reason that the cellular tower needed to be placed in town, stating that it was harmful to the community and environment, with McGrath adding that she strongly felt the city council should look more closely at the project.
Harston asked if the issue needed to be decided upon that evening, with Knox responding that there were a few options on how to proceed with the issue, with continuation an option.
“I really feel like this is going to open up a can of worms that Portola doesn’t want …”
“This is like weeds popping up,” McGrath commented. “If you allow this, I think you’re in for a nasty surprise coming down the road. I also want to say, the hospital may have been informed, but I’m on the board and this is the first I’ve heard about it. It’s not something that has been loudly shouted about.”
Hart stated that concerned citizens had attempted to reach out to hospital staff with flyers regarding that evening’s hearing recently and that outreach had been met with suppression. It was also noted that the issue was likely to come before the hospital board in the near future.
Property owner’s comments
At this time, property owner Ed Laurie introduced himself to the room and briefly reviewed some of the history of his property, stating that he would be receiving $9,600 a year in his lease agreement with Verizon. He estimated that the site was somewhere around 150 feet from his garage.
Laurie said that he was a 35-year resident of the city and a business owner for nearly 30 years. “All of my children and grandchildren are here in Portola, and I love this town and the people in it,” Laurie said emotionally.
“My great-grandchildren go to CRC. I’m never moving. But my property looks really good after years of work, and that’s why I got the tower. None of the other residents have been there for even close to the time that I have.”
Laurie went on to say, “The older I get, the less confident I am that we the people care about each other the way we ought to be caring about each other. I’ll be 81 in two months, and they came up and offered me $800 bucks a month for that property. Would you turn that down? This will double my income.”
Laurie turned and thanked the room, saying that he had already learned a lot that night about radio frequency and more. “I don’t have a computer or any of that crap in my house though,” Laurie said. “If I thought for a minute that there were people in town that thought this was wrong, I wouldn’t have gone for it.”
Laurie went on to say that he was there to speak up for the project, because he had been told that community and businesspeople of the area were excited about the tower.
After some further discussion, the hearing turned to testimony, with concerned citizens making comments to City Manager Lauren Knox.
Hart thanked Knox for her presence, introducing himself and noting that he was the Director of Stop Smart Meters.org as well as spokesperson for the group Plumas Residents for Safer Telecommunications.
Hart stated that his heart went out to the residents of Portola, as well as to Laurie, saying, “Verizon should be ashamed of themselves for proposing such a disastrous project, and so near the hospital. Right in the center of our town. They should be ashamed of themselves for luring residents at sub-standard rates to sell their property and essentially sell out their community.”
Hart went on to state that he hoped there would be a change of heart after a close look at peer-reviewed evidence from the U.S. National Toxicology Program that shows high exposure to radio-frequency radiation, or RFR, is associated with a variety of health problems, such as tumors in the hearts and brains of male rats, as well as an increase in DNA damage.
“The evidence is clear that wireless technology significantly increases the risks of cancer and DNA damage, and it is the highest form of recklessness for Verizon to locate their tower near a hospital, in the middle of a residential neighborhood, given these facts,” Hart said.
Hart went on to point out that about 5 percent of the population in California is electromagnetically sensitive, including himself, experiencing detrimental effects to their health due to wireless technology. Hart encouraged wired-in fiber connections, rather than a 5G ready cell tower.
After reviewing further studies, Hart said, “In summary, we are not opposed to technology — we just believe that there has to be a balance.
“With wired ethernet connectivity, we can be connected with zero need for any microwave radiation and accommodate the increasing demand for online data usage in a way that does not put health and the environment at risk. The California Constitution requires you, as serving local government representatives, to protect the health and safety of the public based on solid evidence.”
Hart concluded, “If the threat of a possible lawsuit from Verizon is more of a concern to you than our children getting leukemia or autism, or our community burning down in a fire, or the safety of our hospital and its staff, then it’s clear we need new officials in office. Please do the right thing and stand up for our community against this corporate bully who seeks only to profit from the pain and economic desperation of this community.”
This was followed by comment from Carol Mero, an RN for decades and an advocate for public health issues. She reported that she herself has EMS, which greatly impacts her health and produced a large stack of materials referencing scientific data that shows the effect of electromagnetic radiation on the body, and the effects on children.
“If this antenna is installed, I will probably have to move out of Portola,” Mero said. “The location is of great concern,” Mero continued. “It’s also concerning that the FCC regulations are not up to date with the current science.”
This was followed by testimony from local Heidi Rose, who stated her opposition to the project, saying that the tower poses a risk to all in Portola. “I think that Verizon should be ashamed of themselves,” she said. “We are hoping the landowner will do the right thing and pull out of this project. We’re all here because we love Portola.”
Rose went on to read a letter from Portola Head Librarian Linda Hale, which stated that the consideration of the installation was very concerning to her and for the local community due to numerous immediate and long-term health reasons.
“From my experience, those who have not experienced adverse reactions to various types of environmental pollution usually have little empathy for those who are sensitive to them and their resulting unhealthy reactions,” Hale’s letter said.
“EMFs are extremely damaging to me since I recently had Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and when I am exposed to high amounts of EMFs, I have several alarming reactions. My upper lip begins to twitch uncontrollably, my face tightens up, my jaw tightens in anxiety and I clench my jaw continually, as well as migraine headaches. Those are the symptoms I can immediately feel.”
Hale’s letter went on to note that any more EMF exposure may make it impossible for her to function in her position at the library, reaffirming her opposition to the project.
Harston spoke once more, directing her statement to Knox; “We’re all here because we love Portola. I think you’re in a really tough position and you need to use your position and responsibility really wisely, especially without the full quorum for a Planning Commission.”
One local said that if the public were not informed of the potential risks of placing the cellular tower in town, there could be legal culpability and risk involved for the landowner and for the city.
Discussion continued further, with Knox ultimately making the decision to continue the public hearing to provide more time for additional information gathering.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that one of the appellants is not a nurse at EPHC and that in her December letter, Acting CEO Jayne O’Flanagan asked the City to deny the permit until an ordinance was passed regarding cell towers.