After much deliberation, discussion and a 4-1 vote on May 17, the Healdsburg City Council approved a land lease agreement between the city of Healdsburg and GTE Mobilnet of California Verizon Wireless for the construction and operation of a 70-foot wireless telecommunications tower at 923 South Fitch Mountain Road adjacent to Tayman Park Golf Course.
While the lease agreement is now approved, the item will have to go to the Healdsburg Planning Commission for land use permit and variance permit approvals.
The 4G tower and telecommunications facility has received strong opposition from many residents near the project site and council members were left to weigh neighbors’ concerns regarding the aesthetics, height and effectiveness of the tower against the need to improve cell coverage — which Healdsburg Fire Chief Jason Boaz and Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke agreed would help improve emergency alerts and notifications — within a critical coverage gap area.
Councilmember Skylaer Palacios held the dissenting vote in the discussion and felt that a third party, independent report paid for by Verizon evaluating the need for the tower — something that several residents and public commenters advocated for — would have been beneficial prior to the council decision.
Palacios said she felt that she didn’t have enough information, such as the number of residents and Verizon subscribers the tower would affect, in order to make an informed decision.
How we got here: Background and project overview
In 2014, Verizon Wireless identified a “significant” coverage gap in central Healdsburg that extends to U.S. Highway 101.
According to a Verizon coverage map, most of the area has only outdoor coverage, a couple small areas have outdoor coverage and coverage in vehicles, or no coverage at all.
Verizon currently has three telecommunications towers in Healdsburg. There are a total of nine cell towers from various carriers, including Verizon, in and around the city.
“Verizon’s radio frequency engineer had determined that a central line of at least 60 feet will be required to fill a significant gap in coverage to provide service to customers as well as emergency services such as 9-1-1 calls in Healdsburg. In particular, poor and spotty coverage exists in the area bounded by Sherman Street, Cemetery Lane, Matheson Street and Fitch Street,” said Maria Kim of Complete Wireless Consulting, the entity representing Verizon Wireless.
Luke Sims, the city’s interim community development director, said Verizon looked at several other potential tower locations, such as Healdsburg High School and Piper Park, but the locations weren’t feasible due to zoning and technical issues and close proximity to homes and neighborhoods.
Kevin Gallagher, a land use planning specialist, said Verizon first approached the Healdsburg Unified School District in 2017 to see if they would be willing to explore the option of constructing the tower at the high school or one of the other school sites, but the district was not interested and did not want to pursue any sort of negotiations with Verizon.
The other site option was Piper Park, however, at the time the city decided that it would be too close and visible to nearby residences.
Verizon also looked at using Trinity Baptist Church on Powell Avenue, but the parcel is residentially zoned and close to neighboring homes.
Councilmember David Hagele asked if Verizon looked into co-locating the tower at the McDonough Heights Road Fitch Mountain cell tower infrastructure area.
Kim said the Fitch Mountain site would not work to cover the central Healdsburg area in need of coverage.
In a scenario with no cell tower, Verizon would have to construct a tower in the public right of way or attempt to achieve the same level of coverage that a tower offers with small cell sites.
Kim said small cell sites only have about 1,000 feet of coverage and are usually used in conjunction with a larger cell tower site.
She said in order to obtain the same coverage that a cell tower would afford, they’d need at least 48 small cell site facilities throughout Healdsburg that would be in the public right of way and close to homes.
“After consulting with the city, Tayman Park was considered the best location as it was furthest from residences, at least 400 feet, and it has the existing tree cover that would allow proper screening of a tall facility,” Kim said. “Furthermore, Verizon would be improving the existing parking lot of the public golf course and would be utilizing the existing golf course path to access the facility, which minimizes ground disturbance.”
The tapered tower would be located on the South Fitch Mountain Road property, which is part of a scenic ridgeline, near the golf course on the eastern portion of the Oak Mound.
The tower was originally slated to be 76 feet tall, however, during a Dec. 8, 2020 planning commission meeting, commissioners requested Verizon to shorten the tower by six feet.
The overall height of the tower will be 70 feet, according to Kim.
The top edge of the antenna will be placed no higher than 64 feet and there will be ground mounted equipment and a diesel backup generator surrounded by a proposed chain link fence with green slats.
Councilmember Ariel Kelley suggested that Kim and the Verizon team present the planning commission with various fencing options when the item returns to the planning commission.
She opined that the commission may want to explore nicer fencing options since that will be one of the most visible components of the project.
A green broadleaf tree design will be used to camouflage the tower. Kim said the original plan was to implement a pine tree design and after initial discussion as well as providing material sample boards, the city and planning commission decided on a darker green broad leaf type design.
With the design of the tower there is the possibility for a future carrier to co-locate their antennas immediately below the Verizon antennas. Should a co-location be requested, the city would have to do a separate lease agreement.
According to Sims, the city lease to Verizon does not allow the height of the tower to be extended any higher to allow for any future additional antennas for a co-located third party carrier. Future antennas from a co-locator would be required to be placed below the Verizon antennas.
“The proposed site will enhance the Verizon network during peak hours of data usage and will also support in-vehicle service along Highway 101 in both directions. With the construction of the Verizon facility, the in-building and in-vehicle (coverage) will have improved greatly throughout central Healdsburg,” Kim said.
The lease agreement is for a 25-year lease. Annual rent will be $28,884 with recent increases on the anniversary date by 3% each year.
In addition, the lease has a grant of easement agreement and memorandum which provides access across the golf course in order to connect utilities to South Fitch Mountain Road and the site will be designated as “quasi-public” use.
Verizon will be liable for any costs associated with any damages that may occur. Vice Mayor Ozzy Jimenez mentioned he was concerned about the diesel power backup generator and who would be liable if it caught fire.
“The facility is remotely monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week and if there are any issues or any site monitors are tripped, a local tech who is responsible for the area will get a notification whatever the time of day is and he or she will be able to take appropriate action. In any event that there is negligence on the part of Verizon and damage results, Verizon agrees to indemnify the city,” Gallagher said.
In a show of opposition towards the cell tower project, a Healdsburg citizen petition was initiated and penned by resident Brad Drexler.
Additionally, Greens Drive resident Camille Jones said according to neighbors going door to door, 50 households said “No thank you” to the planned tower.
The petition, which was submitted through the city clerk’s office, has 42 signatures.
“We believe for safety reasons that this tower should not be located within 300 feet of residential homes and 1,000 feet of a school playground. We believe that if it does end up being located in the proposed site, it would become an unattractive public nuisance and would ask that the maximum height of the tower be limited to 20 feet (because the tower would be visible from the street at 40 feet, but FCC allows an increase in tower height by 20 feet without city approval). Twenty feet is actually the height where the tower would be visible from the second floor of the closest house on Greens Drive,” the petition states.
According to city attorney Samantha Zutler, the city lease with Verizon would supersede the FCC regulations. The tower would not be able to be increased by 20 feet since the height is governed by the lease agreement.
“The FCC has issued a ruling indicating that that portion of the act does not apply to a city when the city is acting in a proprietary capacity. That’s a very lawyerly way of saying that the lease would govern future requests to increase the height of the tower,” Zutler said.
The petition also states that there should be a moratorium on any new cell towers in Healdsburg on public property, “Until Healdsburg has an independent report on cellular alternatives and tower coverage and has developed a needed update to cellular plans.”
Per city code, the city can request Verizon to pay for and conduct an independent review to determine the need of the cell tower.
“I spent several days out in our community knocking on doors and meeting with our citizens in the areas defined as related to the coverage zone and I have found much of what we’ve seen tonight with the ratio of neighbors against the new installation versus for (it),” said resident David Jones, referencing the six or so neighbors who spoke against the project during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting. “We really need to have an independent consultant look out for our best interests and give us the ability to negotiate well for technology that will serve all.”
Resident Yen Trac said she takes issue with the fact that the public isn’t hearing from an independent review on whether or not the tower is needed and whether it has to be 70 feet.
“My concern is we have one perspective, Verizon’s perspective,” she said.
South Fitch Mountain Road resident Michiko Conklin said she supports the cell tower project in the name of public safety.
“When the Nixle alert went out for the Walbridge Fire evacuation, I was in my house on South Fitch Mountain Road and I heard nothing. My husband and I are both Verizon customers and my husband was in Santa Rosa and he got the alert. If we had both been in our house we would have had no idea that we would have had to immediately evacuate so I strongly urge you to support this proposal because it’s in the name of public safety … I think that’s more critical than figuring out whether a Redwood tree, or broadleaf tree, or an oak tree is the most appropriate camouflage for the tower,” Conklin said.
On the other hand, resident Mark McMullen urged the council not to approve the project until it can be further examined by an independent review.
“We need this review to determine if this is adequate,” he said.
Public safety makes the decision
Mitchell asked Chief Boaz and Chief Burke about the advantages the tower would provide from a safety perspective.
“One of the things we’ve been working on diligently since the Tubbs Fire in 2017 is emergency alerting and so in my opinion anything that can enhance emergency alerting would be a benefit to the citizens and our first responders,” Boaz said. “A lot of the alerts we send are based off the cell towers and in addition to having better coverage for alerts, it also provides better coverage for citizens and for first responders for communication of things such as an evacuation or emergency notifications. From that respect, I see that it would improve emergency altering and emergency communications.”
Hagele said while he understands residents’ concerns and that the tower might not make some people happy, he has to look at what’s best for safety.
Jimenez echoed Hagele’s thoughts.
“I think it is really important for us and our role as city council to make sure that residents are heard, but part of our role is also making sure that we are making decisions that benefit our city as a whole,” Jimenez said. “Our community has been through so much trauma related to fires and I look at this Verizon tower — there was one caller who said ‘why is it here for 25 years?’ — and think about what fire season looks like 25 years from now and so I want to make sure that our city is adequately prepared and that no resident, or community member or any visitor who comes to Healdsburg during the fire season ever feels like they’re not getting information from their city, from public safety. I appreciate what the folks on Greens Drive have raised, but we really need to be sensitive to our role on council in terms of representing everyone in our city.”