Commission rejects tower size increase

A cell tower (left) on Furlong Avenue in unicorporated Santa

San Jose – A family that blames a recent spate of serious health
problems on a cell phone tower 200 feet from its home in
unincorporated Gilroy helped defeat a proposal to make the tower
bigger Thursday and vowed to continue a fight to have the tower
removed.
San Jose – A family that blames a recent spate of serious health problems on a cell phone tower 200 feet from its home in unincorporated Gilroy helped defeat a proposal to make the tower bigger Thursday and vowed to continue a fight to have the tower removed.

After an emotional appeal by Steve Britton, who was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes in December, the Santa Clara County Planning Commission unanimously rejected an effort by a subsidiary of Cingular to increase the size of the tower from 35 to 75 feet.

“I can’t quite say how I feel,” Britton said after the hearing, fighting back tears. “It went much better than I expected. I’m going to continue to fight for a planning ordinance to not allow poles to be this close to homes. I realize it may take a while.”

Were it a mile or two east or south, the tower near the Britton’s home on Furlong Avenue would be illegal. Both Gilroy and San Benito Counties have ordinances regulating microwave towers that emit radiation. In Gilroy, towers must be in commercial and industrial areas. San Benito County proscribes towers within 500 feet of homes or 1,500 feet of schools.

Gilroy’s ordinance requires existing towers to be in compliance within five years.

But the county has no such ordinance, leaving the planning commission to approve tower construction on a case by case basis. The county does not have the authority to reject towers that meet safety standards set by the Federal Communications Commission, but it can veto projects that interfere with a neighborhood’s character, as it did Thursday.

The tower was originally proposed to stand 80 feet high. An amended proposal called for a 75 foot tower capped by a tree, a “stealth design” intended to help the tower blend with its surroundings. The owner of the property where the tower stands is paid for use of the land.

Britton told the commission that the pole would “stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t care if it’s a pole or a tree, it’s killing my property values.”

Commissioner Lydia Tan agreed. She said she visited the site last weekend and determined a taller tower “will have a major, detrimental effect on the area.”

Commissioner Dennis Chiu said he normally approves cell towers, but couldn’t support a taller structure in this instance.

“I’m not convinced the proposed site fits in with the character of the neighborhood,” Chiu said. “Whether it’s a 65-foot pole or a 75-foot tree, it doesn’t fit in.”

The Brittons have lived on Furlong Avenue for 12 years. The neighborhood is zoned for agriculture and has been subdivided into residential plots. The flora there is several stories shorter than the proposed tower, which would have improved service for AT&T Wireless and Cingular customers in the Route 152 corridor. The existing tower was erected four years ago.

Britton, 45, said he was diagnosed with cancer just three months after he passed a physical. His wife, Jill, 44, has since developed a tumor in her eye. Britton said his 10-year-old son has developed migraines. Steve Britton has been given a 50 percent chance of surviving.

He told the commission that he fought against the tower when it was first installed and is considering moving to protect the heath of his three children.

“This is our home, and our dream, and I feel like we have to give up everything we wanted because some company wants to make a buck and put this tower next to my house,” Britton said.

Gilroy environmental activist Chris Coté called Britton a hero for struggling through his illness to raise the profile of a dormant issue.

“Two or three years ago, this issue was dead,” said Coté, who authored the Gilroy and San Benito County ordinances. “This man is a hero, going through what he’s going through right now.”

Earlier this week, Britton testified before the Morgan Hill city council, who promised to consider an ordinance soon.

Coté said that cell phone companies have few excuses to place towers in residential areas in South County because the mountains embroidering the valley offer a multitude of prime tower sites. The problem, he said, is that companies do not want to bear the added costs of building electrical infrastructure for mountain top towers.

“They work better on mountains and they’re away from people,” Coté said, “and it would only take a few pennies on everybody’s cell phone bills.”

Santa Clara Supervisor Don Gage said Thursday that he thinks the county should have rules governing towers so that the planning commission doesn’t have to rule on projects on an ad hoc basis. Gage didn’t, though, commit to creating an ordinance.

“There will be more problems putting them up in residential areas,” Gage said. “I do think the county needs an ordinance. The county has a lot of areas where they are desirable, and it’s easy money. That needs to come through planning staff, though, then we can take a look at it.”

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