The Public Eye

Dressed up as trees, cellular towers stir debate

A cellphone tower disguised as a pine tree is seen on Motherlode Drive in El Dorado County on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. In El Dorado County, local ordinances require camouflaging the towers to blend in with the rustic environment. The disputed tower, planned for the Arrowhead Lake area near Placerville, hasn’t been built. But along U.S. 50 between El Dorado Hills and Missouri Flat Road in Placerville, you can can find a dozen “mono-pine” cell towers, dressed up like faux Christmas trees.
A cellphone tower disguised as a pine tree is seen on Motherlode Drive in El Dorado County on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. In El Dorado County, local ordinances require camouflaging the towers to blend in with the rustic environment. The disputed tower, planned for the Arrowhead Lake area near Placerville, hasn’t been built. But along U.S. 50 between El Dorado Hills and Missouri Flat Road in Placerville, you can can find a dozen “mono-pine” cell towers, dressed up like faux Christmas trees. rbenton@sacbee.com

Motorists on Highway 50 may not even notice them as they drive beyond the tony suburban tracts of El Dorado Hills and ascend the Sierra Nevada foothills, passing country farms, oak woodlands and Ponderosa pines.

And then, on closer observation, some towering deviations emerge amid the scenery. On a grassy ridge, or by a weather-beaten barn, cellular phone towers rise from the landscape like giant faux Christmas trees.

Along the highway, from El Dorado Hills to Missouri Flat Road in Placerville alone, wireless communications companies have erected six highway-area “mono-pines” – cell towers dressed up as evergreens under the county’s strict design guidelines. It is part of an effort to provide wireless service to a foothills region, where spotty or nonexistent cell reception is part of the challenge of rural living.

But as new cell towers are erected – or proposed – deeper in rustic regions, residents such as Janet Barbieri are pushing back. Their complaints underscore challenges for local governments trying to accommodate expanded cellular service, particularly in picturesque areas such as El Dorado and other foothill counties.

While cities and counties can impose aesthetic and placement requirements on cell towers, they can’t ban them outright under the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act.

Barbieri was apoplectic recently after Verizon Wireless proposed a 90-foot cell tower on private acreage amid oak-studded hills above Arrowbee Lake in Placerville.

The tower would serve a remote region that includes upscale 5-acre country estates. A simulated photographic design submitted to county officials shows a spindly, metallic pine standing as the tallest feature on the horizon on one side of the lake.

“We all bought our property here because of the way it looks,” said Barbieri, who lives about 400 feet from the proposed tower site. “It will impact our daily enjoyment. ... It looks bad. It looks like a fake pine tree that doesn’t belong there. It looks like it should be in an urban or industrial area.”

Supported by some neighbors, Barbieri created a website – stopthecelltower.com – that claimed the tower would drive down property values, “disrupt the visual peace and beauty of our community” and pose a health threat.

A Verizon spokesman said the project is still under study and that the project and design may be altered to address neighbors’ concerns. The tower is expected to go before the El Dorado County Planning Commission for approval next year.

Heidi Flato, public relations manager for the company’s Pacific Coast market, said Verizon is “working to provide the best service possible to our customers where they need it.” While some neighbors have taken issue with the project, she said, “We have heard from a number of residents who are supportive ... because they want better service.”

Roger Trout, director of the county’s development services division, said cell towers – as well as complaints over limited local service – have stirred contentious debate for years. In the late 1990s, the county imposed a ban on any new cell towers until officials could draft an ordinance on design and siting standards.

The ordinance eventually adopted by the county encourages the placement of cell towers in commercial locations or attached to buildings. Of dozens of towers in the county, Trout said, “we’ve got them on fire stations, on school buildings and water towers.”

In more natural settings, Trout said, the county requires steps to make the towers blend in. Thus, the county has numerous “mono-pines.” The county’s design rules also allow for a “mono-oak” design, though so far no signal-transmitting fake oaks are hiding among the real thing.

Flato said expanding cellphone coverage in remote regions is important for meeting consumer demand and critical for enhancing communications during wildfires or other major events. But she said the the company wants to be sensitive to community concerns.

“We tried to find a site that will not only meet the technical and engineering requirements” for cellular service providers “but is also suitable for the neighborhood,” she said.

In other regions of the country, Flato said, Verizon has dressed up cellular towers like cactus, palm trees or even giant boulders to meet increasing wireless demands while bowing to local sensitivities.

According to documents submitted to the county for the Arrowbee Lake project, the cellular provider reached a tentative leasing agreement with a rural homeowner to erect a cell tower and an equipment shelter in a 33-by-20-foot fenced enclosure. The terms of the lease weren’t revealed.

Verizon said in the documents that it had reviewed six other sites for a cellular tower to alleviate “poor coverage” and “reoccurring lost calls” in the area. The company deemed three sites inadequate for cellular transmission and said property owners at three other sites declined leasing agreements. Verizon said its currently preferred site “lies in an area that is well-screened from public view.”

But Barbieri says the proposed tower on a neighbor’s property, “on a hill, overlooking my house,” looms as a hideous intrusion on her quality of life.

“It’s an extraordinary burden for my family to pay,” she said. “There must be an alternative site. It doesn’t have to be in somebody’s backyard.”

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