The City Council has placed Verizon on hold.
Despite there being an agenda item to vote on the agreement with Verizon to place a 65-foot cellphone tower behind City Hall, the City Council took no official action regarding this issue and its members continue to have different ideas of how to proceed.
In the meantime, City Attorney Steven Flower will look into the feasibility and costs of an independent study regarding the wireless provider’s forthcoming cellphone signal shortfalls and how effective its various options would be at filling that gap.
The San Marino Unified School District Board of Education also plans on meeting soon to determine the next step with Verizon, whose tower at Huntington Middle School is slated for removal after years of controversy over its placement.
“I will communicate to Verizon that patience is running out,” Flower said during his statements closing the prolonged discussion.
The decision and conversation leading up to it was segued by innumerable rounds of applause from a standing room crowd. The attendance was composed almost entirely of residents keen on preventing Verizon from erecting a 65-foot tower just behind City Hall. The City Council echoed its constituents, creating the rare moment in which virtually everyone involved in the Wednesday, July 12, meeting was on the same page.
“There’s no doubt that everyone here is in agreement tonight,” said resident Ann Eittinger. “Get these stupid cell towers off our schools.”
The controversy starts with the tower at HMS, where the company has violated its lease agreement with SMUSD by not attaining all required federal, state and local permits, as mandated.
The proposal currently being considered would have moved the tower behind City Hall, but that drew the ire of nearby residents on Roanoke Road, Melville Drive and San Marino Avenue for both aesthetic and safety reasons.
Mayor Dr. Richard Sun said the city has tried for five years to make the tower — called a “monoelm” for its tree-like appearance — a reality for Verizon, but the reality was that the company was taking its time in responding to negotiations and residents weren’t all too interested in having it in town to begin with.
“To me, the 65-foot monoelm pole is dead,” Sun said, triggering applause. “We have to change direction.”
Indeed, comments from the audience helped to propel the entire City Council meeting well past five hours in length last week. Most had concerns about the proposed site’s proximity to the city’s Fire Department, Emergency Operations Center and Police Department, particularly in the context of an earthquake or windstorm that could topple the tower onto either building.
Others also said they weren’t pleased with the visual impact such a tall structure would have on the residential neighborhoods in the area, and also along the backdrop of the historical City Hall and Fire Department buildings. One resident, Fred Chiang, argued for preserving San Marino’s “brand” and held up a printed photograph of bikini-clad model Samantha Hoopes as a metaphor for the city’s beauty.
Resident Raymond Quan, armed with years of research, also disputed the claim from Verizon that the 65-foot tower was needed for providing the best service and pointed out there were antennae nearly half that height placed on top of commercial buildings that performed just as well.
“We know, historically, that that’s not true,” Quan said of Verizon’s height claim.
Flower added he believed Verizon was open to considering the northwest corner of the San Marino Avenue-Huntington Drive intersection and also that the company was unwilling to remove the existing tower and set up a temporary one without a permanent solution in place.
Chris Norgaard, a longtime board member with SMUSD, said at this meeting that the board had not recently discussed the issue because it had an assurance from the city that the proposed agreement would have the tower removed from HMS by the beginning of the school year.
Although Norgaard did not say what action the board was considering taking, he acknowledged that SMUSD needed to make the first move on its lessee. Numerous City Council members asked if an eviction was forthcoming, but Norgaard, a practicing lawyer, didn’t answer one way or another.
That said, Norgaard seemed to acknowledge that it was time to do something other than continue to negotiate for the best possible solution, which Flower said was the latest message from Verizon’s representatives.
“You could date that to June 2014,” Norgaard said. “I can guarantee in writing that they’ll be willing to do that until 2050.”
Talt, also a lawyer, indicated the city and school district needed to work hand-in-hand to spur action.
“It appears to me that we need a lever against Verizon,” he said. “The only way they’ll stop dragging their feet is if someone takes that breach (of contract) and hits them over the head with it.”
Talt also expressed interest in surveying all of the owners of commercial properties along Huntington Drive to gauge interest in potentially allowing a smaller antenna on their buildings’ roofs.
Residents voiced support for the two entities working toward their interests and for listening to their concerns as they began to mount this month.
“We’ve got your backs,” Eittinger told the City Council.