By Ariele Johannson
March 9, 2013 (Ranchita) -- For most people, their home is their sanctuary. Having a cell tower erected close to your home or in your neighborhood would be an issue. Yet, if you disagreed with a neighbor’s application to install a cell tower, ranging in height to 58’, would you be able to do anything about it? In the unincorporated community of Ranchita, which is 4,065 feet elevation and approximately 12 miles southwest of Borrego Springs, a group of residents is finding out. These residents have formed an organization, Ranchita Community Group for Responsible Cell Tower Siting. They have committed to proving to the county that the proposed location of a new Verizon cell tower is inappropriate. The construction company is Vista Towers, LLC. The county’s job is to review the application for the tower.
The newly-formed organization held an informational meeting on Thursday, February 14, 2013, because members of the San Diego Planning and Development Services offered to come up to Ranchita. Planning Manager, Jarrett E. Ramaiya, and Land Use and Environmental Planner, Marisa Smith, attended for two reasons: to experience the area surrounding the proposed Verizon cell tower site and to hear concerns of Ranchita residents. Not represented at the meeting, however, were the many visitors and tourists who travel each year to our desert region, where this cell tower will be visible from designated Scenic Highway S22. In fact, the proposed site is only 800’-1000’ from what is called the “view shed” on roads designated as scenic highways or byways. County Route S22 begins at the junction with County Highway S2 in San Diego County and runs eastward as Montezuma Valley Road through the rural community of Ranchita. It enters Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and then descends for approximately 12 miles (19 km) to the desert community of Borrego Springs, offering magnificent views of the Borrego Valley as it winds steeply down Montezuma Grade. This route was established in 1968.
The drive into Ranchita from Highway 79 and San Felipe Road features the rolling hills of the San Felipe Mountains, grazing meadows, and various ecosystems and climate zones existent throughout this rugged region of ancient oaks. It is the route to Lake Henshaw, Warner Springs, and Borrego Springs. The proposed site is on Old Mine Road, a private dirt road with about fifty homes in the vicinity that would be affected by the tower. These include the private residential property at which the cell tower is proposed. A neighbor and owner of two historic adobe homes built in 1940 and her tenant are close to that property. The cell tower would be visible from all of the many windows of the adobe, which are on the side of the home facing the proposed area a little farther up on a low hill. The approximate physical distance to the tower site is only 1,000’. Currently, there is nothing blocking the view. Protection does exist under Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act for buildings available for historic designation.
Ranchita residents brought a list of concerns to the gathering. They are urging the county to change to an alternative site, one that is suitable and does not change the character of the area or risk the health and well-being of people and animals. The list includes property devaluation, health concerns, fire safety, public safety, marring of a designated scenic highway, noise, aesthetics, community character, and zoning. The county argues that a large tower like this one has to be close to those homes, businesses, or roadways it will serve. Currently, AT&T provides a good signal and all smart meters in Ranchita transmit data from wireless smart meters via the AT&T signal from Rutherford Peak on Volcan Mountain. So, there is a good signal from that location to all of Ranchita. Several people at the meeting attested to adequate cell phone coverage. They believe Volcan Mountain would be as a better site, co-located on Rutherford Peak. A site on Volcan Mountain would actually benefit the sheriff’s department in San Felipe Valley with a cell signal, whereas the current proposed location in Montezuma Valley would not.
Planning Manager Jarrett Ramaiya told the group they try to borrow elements from existing character to disguise towers. He distributed color copies of computer photo simulations prepared by Vista Towers. In one, the cell tower is hidden by a water tower; and in another, by an artificial monopine, which towers above the existing foliage. The height of the proposed cell tower is 58’. Parts of the equipment shelter are 12’ high. A split-face CMU walled enclosure would be built, ranging from almost 7’ tall to 12’ tall in places (with a 12’ tall steel gate along the front of the tower) for protection and noise reduction. Neither of the options in the photos was well received by the community. There is no structure shown in the photo simulations, so they tend to be misleading.
The Planning Commission is the body which makes the final decision. A hearing will be held with about fifty days notice to the public if the project is approved. However, Mr. Ramaiya told attendees the project is still in draft stage, and they have purposely slowed down the project. He stated that he prefers to hear residents, and for it to be an organic process. So, why is the area on the hill graded if the project is only a proposed one? These and other issues were discussed.
Barbara Schnier brought up the subject of generator noise as the group sat on the patio next to a 500 year old oak in the quiet and peaceful ambience of the land. The response was that the County of San Diego has a noise ordinance that governs proposed projects and a specialist who analyzes all conformity with this ordinance at the property line. One can apply to have this mitigated. But another concern is the frequencies which are emitted by cell towers. When Planning and Development Services applies for a major use permit, only the following aspects have to support the project’s application to the Commission: bulk, scale, coverage, traffic issues, and community character. Potential health hazards to the public are not included in the list of considerations that the county needs to address. Yet, there are numerous studies on real health hazards associated with electromagnetic frequencies. The 2012 BioInitiative reviews all of the current science, and it shows that extremely high radio frequency levels are allowed by the FCC. Some believe FCC guidelines are not based on the current scientific evidence. There are 29 international experts who subscribe to the most current findings, including Cindy Sage and Sage Associates of Santa Barbara. Ms. Sage’s comments and findings as an Environmental Science Consultant since 1972 were filed before the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C. on February 3, 2013.
As much as city and suburban dwellers do not want to pay for wildfires in the back country, so back country residents do not want industrial sites (cell towers, utility lines, power links, etc.) causing fires in their communities. It has been determined that recent major fires have been started by SDG&E utility power equipment in rural areas of San Diego County. Lori Livingston inquired about the danger of sparking in a windy area and incidence of cell towers falling. Cell towers can fall like trees due to weather, fire, or poor construction, and cases been documented with some frequency. Other concerns included the greater likelihood of industrial sites with generated power starting fires in a community with one escape route. But according to Ramaiya, the site would be designated as civic or service, rather than industrial. This was challenged by one resident, because a cell tower can have numerous transmitters for co-location. This might seem like a fine point, but industrial site requirements are more rigorous. Certainly, a cell tower would be perceived by many as an industrial site.
Angela Acosta of Warner Springs Realty spoke to the issue of property values, which in this particular area are the highest in Ranchita. The existence of a cell tower would be a major drawback for potential buyers. A great majority of her clients consider this area for health reasons: minimal chemicals, clean water, fresh air, less radio frequencies-in some cases for autistic children- and quiet. Property values are related to contiguous open space and industrial sites, and can be valued or devalued by 20%. This hurts homeowners when they cannot sell their property for its prior value. According to Ramaiya, property values are relevant and Ms. Acosta’s comments are appreciated, but again, the issue is not one he has to report on for a major use permit.
The county also stated that there are needs of residents who want more cell service, internet, and business opportunities. Yet, residents at the meeting report that cell coverage by AT&T works well throughout Ranchita, and some are getting high speed internet with the “hot spot” device on smart phones now provided by cell phone companies . However, all of a sudden, after having good Verizon service on Montezuma Valley Road, the service got worse to nonexistent in places where it was previously working. Verizon customers noticed it started in November 2012 when the applicant took the project off-hold. Supposedly, there has been no degradation of service. Tammy Cooter added that before the Pine Fire, Verizon was the only active cell company here and that she still has Verizon. She added that a Verizon tower could go on Volcan Mountain without disturbing the health benefits and beauty of this place.
Alana Sills is one of those who moved to Ranchita to heal. She lives in one of the two adobe homes near the neighbors applying for the cell tower project. Once ill and on several medications, her health has improved drastically since moving to this spot. She reports that when she visits relatives in Murietta, she gets sick from a nearby cell tower and will have to move if a tower goes in. She believes radio frequencies would affect the energy and healing properties of the environment here, as well as plants and the abundant wildlife.
Archaeological and paleontological concerns have surfaced. Digging through inches of topsoil to plant her garden, Ms. Sills found, among others, a conch shell. Shells are aged according to how they are fossilized, and this one was dated by a gemological lab at approximately five million years. There is evidence this area was once a waterway and higher than Borrego, perhaps connected to the Sea of Cortez. Water eventually washed off to the Salton Sea, so the area could be full of fossils. Thomas Markell III added that the area is culturally rich in arrowheads, pottery, and metates. Ramaiya assured them there would be a certified paleontologist onsite to monitor all excavating.
The proposed site is on a parcel of private property with a home, and it has been cleared and graded. When asked about this, Jarrett Ramaiya agreed it was suspicious, being cleared so close to the time of application. The resident claims he cleared it for fire defensible space. But there is no reason to clear vacant land over a thousand feet from the home in just the one spot where the tower would go. In fact, it is a violation to prepare a site for development by an individual property owner or an installation company without a permit before project approval. Biological review is required to document the vegetation pattern and determine whether there are any sensitive plants. Vista Towers/ Plancom withdrew two prior applications because of existent protected botanical species that would be disturbed. Grading prior to application this third time removed that obstacle.
As The Ranchita Community Group for Responsible Cell Tower Siting and their friends hold their breath, the county performs its due diligence. Updates will be made available as the story develops for this group of San Diego County residents determined to fight city hall. They are accepting donations for their legal fund that will go directly to their legal representatives. Donations over $100 are tax deductible and should be made out to Peoples Initiative Foundation. Smaller donations, even as low as $5, are greatly appreciated and those can be made out to Ranchita Community Group for Responsible Cell Tower Siting or RCGRCTS. All donations should be sent to the following address: Ranchita Community Group for Responsible Cell Tower Siting, P.O. Box 501, Warner Springs, CA 92086