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Los Altos neighbors protest cell-tower installation

Photo Courtesy Of John Poggi A 30-foot cell tower on private property is slated to be replaced by a 55-foot antenna.

Residents in the unincorporated Santa Clara County area adjacent to Los Altos and Los Altos Hills are taking legal action to thwart the installation of two 55-foot cellphone antennas – towers approved in January through a county Board of Supervisors decision described by neighbors as “strange.” Meanwhile, the owner of the property on which the towers sit said he is baffled by the protests.

Residents in the Whitham Avenue-Miller Avenue loop west of the Los Altos Golf & Country Club delivered a writ of mandate to the county to challenge its decision and halt progress of any tower installation.

What made the decision curious, according to neighbor Douglas Pan, is that applicant Marshall Jackson had initially asked for one 55-foot tower on his 0.69-acre property at 1721 Whitham Ave.

Responding to opposition from more than 100 neighbors, Jackson last December offered to replace two of his three existing 30-foot cell towers with two 55-footers. The Board of Supervisors Jan. 25 approved a motion by Supervisor Liz Kniss for no more than three towers, but allowed for the possibility that two of those three towers could be 55 feet.

“We were trying to block one 55-foot tower and we came out of the meeting with two approved,” Pan said. “It was very strange to us.”

Kniss said she was trying to enact a compromise among neighbors and the applicant, whom she met with prior to the decision.

County counsel then stepped in to clarify, four and a half months after the decision, in a June 7 written resolution approved on the supervisors’ consent calendar: One 55-foot tower is approved, and Jackson would have to restart the process for a second tower.

“We know this is not what the neighbors want,” Kniss said. “If we said take them down when they are allowed, we would have gone through a legal process (as well).”

Jackson said the county has “very stringent rules” regarding tower placement under Wireless Communication Facilities Design Guidelines. Responding to concerned neighbors, county planning officials have placed additional restrictions on his property.

“I am additionally confused as to why anyone would be against this type of development,” Jackson said. “Everyone uses cellphones. Everyone has experienced the frustration of dropped calls. The safety aspects of cellphone coverage are obvious. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s department has written letters in support of this development. A fire battalion chief living in Los Altos has voiced his support. EMTs have voiced their support. Parents support this project.”

Neighbor John Poggi said there were several problems with the cell towers: a 55-foot tower approved despite a 37-foot height limit in place for development; a nonresidential use on a residential lot; and setbacks of 20 feet from the street and within 100 feet of homes.

In a Sept. 1, 2010, letter to Poggi, Los Altos Assistant Planner Heidi Koo said city regulations dictate that cell towers “would not be permitted within a residential zone or 150 feet from a residentially zoned property.” Like Los Altos residential, the Whitham-Miller area is zoned R1-20.

Whitham-Miller neighbors this month hired an attorney and took legal action, citing “a raft of errors, omissions and highly questionable activities in the cell-tower approval process,” Poggi wrote in an email to the Town Crier. Poggi is one of six plaintiffs filing the writ of mandate.

Pan said he is not only concerned with the eyesore factor, but also with safety.

“I am directly across the street (from Jackson’s property),” he said. “If that (55-foot tower) were to topple … that would be so scary. You’re walking right underneath them.”

Jackson said he would be more concerned about old trees toppling in storms than the antenna towers. As for their appearance, he said people visiting the area often tell him they can’t see the towers. The 14-year property owner said antenna towers have been on his land for 20 years and there has been no neighborhood protest about them until now.

Colin Rudolph, the lead plaintiff on the writ of mandate, said the county has ignored “the interests of a neighborhood for the interests of one.”

“The idea of a 55-foot tower in a residential neighborhood is unacceptable,” Rudolph said. “It simply would not be accepted in Los Altos or Los Altos Hills. … At the end of the day, listen to the people.”

Verizon, AT&T and other providers desire 50-plus-foot towers to accommodate their newly advertised 4G cellphone services.

Kniss said the subject of cellphone antenna towers “is like a lightning rod. There are strong feelings about them.” On the other hand, she added, “People want good cellphone coverage.”

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