Verizon customers in the area have every right to be upset at the Ceres City Council following its Monday, June 8 action.
The major cell phone company wants to improve coverage area in Ceres, as well as in the industrial area to the north of the river and the Modesto Airport area. Thus, Verizon desires adding a new tower in a strategic location - in the yard of a business at 2907 Nicholas Way (where Angie and Nicholas meet).
In a 4-1 vote, the council told Verizon to stick it up somebody else's pole.
The Ceres Planning Commission previously debated the issue - after city staff didn't recommend approval - and voted 3-2 against the tower. One of those favoring the request was Bob Kachel, who has a breadth of planning experience beyond the other members. Both he and Hugo Molina didn't feel there was an aesthetic problem with a new tower being in close proximity to another one.
The issue is a bit complex since it involves city practices and the science of how cell towers work. Let me try to simplify.
Tom Westbrook, director of Community Development, recommended denial of Verizon's request, citing city staff's unwritten "preference" to have companies gang up on the same pole. Westbrook admitted that the city's industrial zoning allows the Verizon tower but proclaimed "that my job is to look at the aesthetics."
Herein lies the city's problem. The zoning code conditionally allows cell towers but does not say how much space must be between cell towers. It's only past practice that co-locatable towers are built, not a requirement in the code.
Westbrook tried coaxing Verizon to mount its equipment on an existing pole some 350 feet south on Angie Way. The pole, owned by SBA, already has two carriers with one third position remaining. You might call it the "bottom man on the totem pole" position, which, as everyone knows, is not a desirable place to be.
Verizon was pretty clear that no cell carrier wants to be as low as 56 feet to the ground. Since cell signals operate line of sight - they don't bend around river bluffs, hills and mounds - the best place to be is as high as possible. Verizon's site acquisition consultant, Mark Lobaugh of Epic Wireless Group, insisted that the next available position on the existing 82-foot-tall Angie tower is at 56 feet height - not high enough to maximize coverage for the $350,000 cost. Verizon wanted its own tower with receiver and transmitter equipment at 61 feet, a difference of five feet taller, which he added "means all the difference in the world."
Lobaugh said that in a "sea of residential ... there really aren't any good locations other than this industrial park to adequately serve this coverage area." He said the area is seriously underserved and customers experience a lot of dropped calls, poor data transmission speeds and poor cell signal.
Members of the City Council took great lengths to create objections to the Verizon tower, despite its proposed height being 17 feet shorter than the Angie Way tower approved in 2005.
Vice Mayor Bret Durossette fashioned his questions to Lobaugh to suggest that the equipment building would emanate "noise" since he hears a hum from the cell equipment building at Costa Fields. Lobaugh said the only sound would be the hum of a small AC unit to keep the equipment cool. (One has to wonder what would be more annoying - an air conditioner humming or the whine of diesel brakes and sound of traffic on nearby Mitchell Road?)
Mayor Chris Vierra, a civil engineer by trade and hardly an expert on cellular phone signals, viewed Lobaugh's claims with open suspicion. Vierra penned out his own angles and did some quick trigonometry to suggest the height difference wasn't worthy of concern. "Maybe I'm a little green when it comes to this ... maybe I'm missing something here but I'm not quite bought into the six foot is that big of a difference." Lobaugh insisted it was, however.
Vierra asked Lobaugh if Verizon had any towers at 56 feet. He replied, yes, in Fresno, where the city has capped cell tower height at 60 feet, which means there are cell towers "all over the city." In their quest to over regulate, Fresno leaders thought they were being smart but now have a proliferation of towers because of their height cap.
Councilman Mike Kline appeared confused as he asked questions in trying to understand technical Doppler type maps of coverage areas evaluated at different heights.
Only one on the council, Linda Ryno, could see that the city had a real problem fighting something which the code allows. She noted that if the city wants greater separation of cell towers, they need to delineate that in the code, not arbitrarily say who gets to build a tower and who doesn't. "Why do we have an ordinance if we aren't going to go by what that ordinance says," said Ryno.
Resident Leonard Shepherd, who often interjects good old fashion horse sense, reminded the council that, duh, the higher the tower the better the signal coverage. He also said the average person in Ceres "doesn't give a rip about aesthetics."
The council didn't even express the slightest interest in Lobaugh's offer to disguise the tower as a pine tree and place a nylon antenna sock over it to soften its appearance. If aesthetics was the concern, they sure didn't want to pursue that compromise.
Kline admitted to me the next day that he was unaware that there was an existing tower on Angie Way. Keep in mind that that one is taller than the one Verizon proposed. So much for the tower being an eyesore.
On Friday I drove southbound into Ceres on Mitchell Road to see where the Angie tower would first come into view. I didn't see it until my vehicle got to Nicholas Way and even then, there was no "oh my gosh, what an ugly tower" experience.
As I listened to the council's lengthy debate, I got this nagging suspicion that there was some behind-the-scenes drama against the tower. It all got a little clearer with two opponents got up to speak.
Randy Moring, who owns a 14,000-square-foot residential lot backing up to the industrial area, was the first to speak against the tower. Moring has had a family connection to Durossette. Moring suggested it was about aesthetics of the tower and the building on the ground, even though the equipment building is only 10 feet tall and tucked behind a six-foot fence. Even Westbrook suggested the building wouldn't be very visible.
Local contractor, Harinder Toor, who lives in a McMansion on North Canyon Drive, also protested. He mentioned owning six residential lots on Canyon Drive - on which he wants to build more upper scale homes - and somehow the tower would damage his property value. Toor, who gave Durossette a $100 campaign contribution in 2011, insisted that the tower "will definitely affect my retail value." Toor didn't say why his custom homes are being built so close to an industrial park or explain if the nearby Angie tower has resulted in a loss of property value.
I've suspected, over the years, that members of the Ceres City Council curry special favor to friends, campaign donors or people for which they hold greater esteem in the community. Case in point is the way the council has treated their dealings with Dirk Wyatt, a land owner, billboard king and insurance agent. The council has rarely said no, if ever, to Wyatt. Years back, Ken Lane rushed to defend Wyatt's proposal to add yet another billboard on Highway 99, which was too close to another billboard, and the council changed the policy to allow it. In case you're wondering, Wyatt served as Lane's campaign treasurer in 2011. Lane also favored, in 2007,Wyatt's request to proceed with annexation of 52 acres near Ceres River Bluff Regional Park without undergoing the required area wide master plan. In 2010, Lane supported Wyatt's request to put up an electronic reader board on Mitchell Road after revamping the sign ordinance to allow them. And despite concerns lodged by neighbors about traffic, the council in 2009 approved Wyatt's request to convert a vacant house at the corner of Sixth Street and Whitmore Avenue to an Office (O) use and rezone the property from Single Family Residential (R-1) to Administrative Professional (A-P).
The bottom line is that councilmembers should probably excuse themselves from voting on matters if any close friends and campaign backers are directly involved.
The council's alleged concern about aesthetics over the Verizon tower might resonate if they were as equally troubled about the huge eyesore in the city water tower, which is embarrassing with its rust and peeling paint. And in case you're wondering, that eyesore is 80 feet high.
Meanwhile, if you have terrible Verizon service in that area of Ceres, you have the Ceres City Council - and their friends - to blame.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org