- View of the new cell tower from a nearby property. Photo by Heidi Walters
It started with the cement trucks, trundling day and night up Fickle Hill Road and, five or so miles in, turning onto a dirt road. Or maybe it actually started earlier than the cement trucks -- maybe the first real indication, if anyone could have guessed it, that a new cellular communications tower was going to soar, in a heartbeat, into the viewscape of this rural ridge-flanking neighborhood was the timber harvest that preceded it. Or maybe that's just a coincidence.
Well, whatever -- the 160-foot tower is up now. From a few spots on Fickle Hill Road, and from many places down along Humboldt Bay, you can glimpse its gleaming, spindly metal essence, topped by a boxy lattice. For such a modern device, it looks decidedly Wellsian -- dated-futuristic, War-of-the-Worlds awkward, not at all like the future, in fact. Not even, noted one observer, disguised to look like a scraggy old redwood, like it could have been.
Some Fickle Hill Road residents aren't happy about it.
"That baby went up in a week's time," said Carol Schillinger, whose rustic grand home now has a scenic view of the new tower on its partially logged knoll. "I tell you, I've never seen anything get built that fast in Humboldt County."
Even if they'd had more time, their agitation would have been for naught, for this particular tower anyway. The new cell tower, built by Edge Wireless, is on land the communications company leased from Green Diamond Resources/Simpson Timber. The land falls under Humboldt County's Timberland Production Zoning (TPZ) regulations: on TPZ and Agriculture Exclusive (AE) lands, permitted uses include the "erection, construction, alteration, or maintenance of gas, electric, water or communication transmission facilities." That's been the rule since the 1980s, said Humboldt County Senior Planner Alyson Hunter. On TPZ land, all the cell tower proponent needs from the county is a building permit -- the request for which does not require public notification. Other than that, the Federal Aviation Administration regulates cell tower heights to ensure they're not flight hazards, and the Public Utilities Commission and Federal Communications Commission issue their respective licenses.
"We do have a draft wireless communications ordinance," Hunter said. "About four years ago, we had a little public outcry over a cell tower [proposed for] the Arcata Bottoms that everybody was all worked up about." Cell tower workshops were held, and staff drafted an ordinance. The purpose of the ordinance, according to wording in the draft, was to "promote the orderly and appropriate development of wireless telecommunications facilities within the County in a manner that will protect and promote public health and safety, prevent visual blight, preserve the County's rural character and protect scenic, natural and cultural resources."
But the Board of Supervisors decided to hold off on finalizing the ordinance, instead working it into the ongoing General Plan Update process. Hunter said the ordinance is a good idea. "It is time to address new technology," she said. "I think that back in the dark ages, when our General Plan was done, they might have been thinking of telephone wires." But even if the ordinance does come to pass, it might not affect TPZ lands, said Hunter. "It's unlikely [the ordinance] is going to require a discretionary permit for TPZ land cell towers. The draft was more focused on urban areas and visual impacts there."
County supervising planner Steve Werner offered another explanation: "In the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, counties are allowed to regulate" siting of cell towers, Werner said. "But ... counties have a narrowed ability to impose restrictions. In short, the courts have sided with industry."
It's an inadequate answer for many of the residents on Fickle Hill Road. "There's no environmental assessment, no aesthetic review, no neighborhood notification," said resident Liz Finger.
Finger said she's not against cell towers. But she worries about the big picture. "This situation exemplifies the inherent conflicts that can arise from the 'industrial/residential interface,'" she said. "I have often encountered ... the attitude that if you live ... in close proximity to ... land zoned TPZ, that you have to just bear with whatever activities occur on that land or associated operations, such as log truck traffic. I believe equal consideration needs to be given to the 'use' and value of all land and landowners."
Schillinger put it more bluntly: "Simpson's been a really good neighbor. But they own an awful lot of ridge tops. If they did one below my house, that would upset me more [than the one that just went up]. But I was really amazed, quite frankly, there was no notification. I think they're messing up decades of goodwill by not giving at least a courtesy notice."
Finger said the neighbor she feels sorriest for is Alan Flaks, whose 32 acres abut the timberland where the cell tower sits. "He's definitely lost property value because of it," she said.
Flaks, who lives part time in San Francisco, bought the property, including a 4,000-square-foot house, a year and a half ago for $970,000, thinking he'd transition to living in Humboldt County full time. Right away he encountered trouble. "As soon as I moved in last summer, I saw there was a notice of a timber harvest planned," he said. "Never in any real estate disclosure did it say there was a clearcut planned." He phoned up Green Diamond/Simpson Timber to ask them if they'd leave a buffer zone. "They gave a little bit," Flaks admitted. The company left a half-moon fringe of tall trees on the high knoll visible from Flaks' house (as well as from down along the coast).
During the logging skirmish, Flaks said, the timber company never mentioned it'd be leasing the knoll to a cell company for a tower. "Then, a month ago, I got word from my neighbor -- I was out of town -- that there were cement trucks going in at night. They were building a foundation." He and the neighbor went to a lawyer, who gave them a shrug that said utility companies "have lots of rights" that are hard to contest. At the county planning office, they learned about TPZs.
After that, Flaks said, he was too angry to call the timber company -- he was afraid he'd lose his composure. He allows, however, that the tower is "less obtrusive" than he expected. "The little matchstick mound of trees provide a little bit of a screen." But he's worried about the potential for health impacts from the radio waves and the possible noise the on-site generator and air conditioner may produce.
Flaks and his neighbors remain perturbed that the timber company didn't talk to them before leasing the property for a cell tower.
Dan Opalach, of Green Diamond/Simpson, sounded astonished at the residents' objections to the tower. "Gosh, there appears to be a demand for these kinds of services," he said. "Don't they use cell phones? I know I do." To the accusation that the company had lapsed in its "good-neighbor" policy, he responded, "Gosh, they might feel that way." But if the company decided to notify the public every time it applied for a building permit, "you could see we could be sending guys out all the time. Where does it stop? Our traditional timber harvest activities, we have to notify that. But to do things above and beyond the law -- we can't do that. ... We're always trying to do the right thing, but gosh, where does the line end?"
Opalach declined to disclose how much Edge Wireless was paying to lease the knoll-top property, and Edge Wireless did not return several phone calls. But Hunter, the county's senior planner, said she doubts cell towers will proliferate. Sure, there are almost a million acres of land zoned TPZ, covering 45 percent of Humboldt County. And, there are already about 30 cell towers in the county, Hunter said, some "huge cell farms" and others small affairs.
"But they're not really going to be popping up everywhere," she said. "They're fairly expensive, and they're pretty strategic."