Nobody disputes that Huntington Beach developer Ed Harden purchased a hilltop site off of Highway 41 west of Atascadero in 2004, graded a road to the top without proper county permits, chatted up unsuspecting neighbors about his plans to settle there, and then, without telling them, sold off rights to put up a cell phone tower.
But what has a group of neighbors especially worked up is that, instead of turning down the project due to the improper grading, the County Planning Commission last month took steps to approve plans for the Sprint Nextel tower, which is aimed at eliminating a roughly five-mile reception dead spot.
Organized as Toro Creek Opposition Group and with more than 250 petition signatures in hand, the neighbors hope that the commission changes its mind when it revisits the matter, which is scheduled to come up again Aug. 9 although county staff warn that a decision could be delayed until December.
According to Lauren Lajoie-Frye, a contract planner for San Luis Obispo County, there are roughly 200 cellular towers located around the region. Many neighbors of the potential new addition to the landscape don't want that number to grow.
"I love this state," said Sylvia Blanchard, who relocated from New Orleans with her husband Jim to a home in the Highway 41-West area four years ago. "I just hope they don't do this."
The 40 or so homeowners who live in the hillside area about nine miles inland from Morro Bay are still unclear how the high-powered, four-antenna, multi-carrier cellular tower came to be submitted for conditional approval at the July 12 meeting of the County Planning Commission.
It's not just the view of the countryside from kitchen windows that's motivated people like David Darge, of the Toro Creek group.
"They should follow their own rules," Darge said of the permitless grading. "We can't understand. We'd like the county to follow procedure."
"The property owner did grade the site without the benefit of a permit. They still do not have a building permit," said Lajoie-Frye, who's acting as county staff on the project, and also mediated a two-hour meeting between some of the cellular companies and residents.
Harden, who said he's been in the wireless-service business for 14 years, admits that the road was graded sans permit, but said he thought he could move up to 50 cubic yards under an agricultural exemption, such as his family has done in the area in the past. He said that more dirt was moved in the grading than he expected, and that there was already a road to the top of the site when he purchased the property.
Harden will be fined for the unpermitted grading, but that didn't stop the Planning Commission from giving preliminary approval to the permit. Lajoie-Frye admitted that the county is concerned that the move "sends the wrong message" to other developers, with two Planning Commission members seeking denial on that basis at the recent meeting. For the homeowners, it's just one of several major points against the installation.
Darge and others are requesting that the county look at all alternatives for possible tower locations, pointing out that the county General Plan requires that new installations choose previously existing tower sites for new towers before creating new sites.
Impacts on land values, traffic, fire safety, water storage at the new site, and unrestricted expansion at the new site for more antennas pumping out more powerful EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) are also among the group's issues. Darge said that one homeowner in the area claims she would sell her home if the site goes in, and others feel likewise put out.
"There are people who would not buy property in this area because of the cellular tower," Darge said.
Another issue, disputed by researchers but very much on the minds of local residents, is the possible negative health impacts that might be caused by high-powered radio-frequency radiation over long periods.
Adding to the complex layers of concerns, Lajoie-Frye pointed out that federal law prohibits local counties from stopping installations based solely on such types of health concerns. The Telecommunications Act of the 1990s, a windfall for phone-service companies, restricts local review of sites on the basis of health concerns, she said. The county gets reports on radio-frequency output levels, she said, but can't stop the sites for health concerns alone.
"So many times I see neighbors so concerned about [radio-frequency health impacts]. There's a lot of frustration. As a professional, I tell people they have to go to the FCC. That's where the change has to happen."
From homeowner Sylvia Blanchard's point of view, the developer's community concern may have been lacking from the beginning. Harden told neighbors he was building a house on the property for his retirement. She had even planned a Welcome Wagon-type party or neighborhood potluck to welcome the new residents, but soon felt that Harden didn't seem to intend to live on the land.
"I'd ask about his family," Blanchard said. "When are they coming up? But he wasn't going to build a house there at all."
"Our first intention was to put a home there, yes," Harden said. "The cell site was never a secret. I don't think I'm required to tell all the neighbors what I do."
He added that he's not surprised at the concerns.
"It's the same attitude that I've seen before, which is 'not-in-my-backyard,'" he said.
Darge said the site in question is more than a simple cellular tower, and is actually planned as a multi-carrier site that could be used by numerous companies. Lajoie-Frye confirmed that.
"Everyone thinks a cell tower is just a pole," Darge said. "Well, this is sixteen antennas. This is not just a pole up in the air. This is a mega-site."
Julian Phillips is a freelance writer living in the North County, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.