Dueling cell sites: Just one Bottoms tower will stand

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

ARCATA BOTTOM – ​County planning commissioners are ready to approve a 130-foot cell tower in the Arcata Bottoms area, convinced that improved service coverage is needed and the best option is a tower that can host as many carriers as possible.

​At its July 15 meeting, the Planning Commission considered two Arcata Bottoms cell tower proposals. Planning staff recommended reviewing both, giving direction and continuing the hearing to August 5 for action.

​And that action will likely be approval of the taller 130-foot lattice tower, which is advanced by PWM, Inc. and sited on Sun Valley Floral Farms property near the intersection of Foster Avenue and Dolly Vardon Road. ​The other proposal, from AT& T, is a 100-foot tower disguised as a water tank and sited on Foster Avenue near the Janes Road intersection.

​Planning staff recommended not to approve both but Planning Director John Ford said there’s nothing stopping the commission from doing so. He said the commission could also reject both.  

​The hearing became a duel between the two proposals.

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​Ashley Smith of the Epic Wireless Group LLC consulting firm emphasized that AT&T’s tower would be the “least intrusive” option.

​Commissioner Melanie McCavour, the Arcata area’s representative, asked Smith to address the “considerable pushback from the community in terms of saying nobody feels they need more (service) access.”

​Smith said there is a “significant gap in services.”  A map showing the coverage void was soon shown by Andrew Lesa, also of Epic Wireless Group.

​Representing PWM, Tom McMurray, a longtime county telecommunications service consultant, said the Sun Valley site is zoned heavy industrial and “is not in a wetland like the other site and not in an ag-exclusive zone.”

​But county Planner Cliff Johnson told commissioners that the AT&T tower is not in a wetlands area.

​Later, McMurray said PWM has “master lease agreements” with all major carriers and “that entices them because of lower rates on our towers.”

​Lesa countered, saying that AT&T isn’t one of the carriers that has a pact with PWM and “AT&T is proposing improved service right now – we’re not in discussion with anyone, we’re not trying to negotiate a deal.”

​Only six people spoke during a public comment session, including a frequent meeting commenter and a representative of the owner of the AT& T site.

​Arcata farmland preservation advocate Lisa Brown was one of four people who urged rejection of both proposals.

​She said that a denial of a tower project in 2003 was premised on lack of a county cell tower ordinance. The county still doesn’t have an ordinance and without one, she continued, cell tower projects should be subject to Environmental Impact Report reviews.

​ Although the PWM tower will be taller than AT&T’s, the structures on the Sun Valley project site provide partial visual shielding.

​But the site also figures into the opposition.

A written comment to the commission from Ramona Fair, the property owner nearest to the PWM project, states that “this is just another attempt on the part of Sun Valley aka Arcata Land (Company) to profit from something that is a bad idea for the community & neighborhoods.”

​Arcata Land Company is Sun Valley’s business entity for a controversial large-scale greenhouse cannabis project.

​Commissioners said they favor PWM’s tower.

​Commissioner Mike Newman said its presence among Sun Valley’s buildings is an advantage, as is its ability to host four carriers instead of ATT”s capacity of three.

​McCavour agreed, saying that to reduce overall numbers of towers, ones with the most carriers should get priority.

​Commissioner Noah Levy also agreed and said he has experienced the lack of coverage in the Bottoms area and with more carriers, PWM’s tower would offer better service scope.

​Commissioner Thomas Mulder also supported the higher carrier capacity option and Commissioner Peggy O’Neill said she’s “all for height” due to the more expansive service it enables.

​Board Chair Alan Bongio agreed with his colleagues and said the PWM site offers better security as it’s not on an isolated agricultural parcel.

​He also questioned whether the tower should taller.

Seconding a motion to continue the hearing to Aug. 5, Newman noted that a tower up to 150 feet has been included as an alternative and asked that it “be looked at as well.”


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