Fresno County to cellphone tower companies: Stay off our land, at least for now

A cell phone tower was built next to a sidewalk in a public right-of-way in Los Angeles.
A cell phone tower was built next to a sidewalk in a public right-of-way in Los Angeles. Pacific Palisades Residents Association

Fresno County supervisors have slapped a moratorium on cellphone towers that a company has proposed building in three areas of the county, and they are not alone in their concerns about the Southern California firm’s plans.

The same company, Mobilitie, also told the cities of Clovis and Fresno it wants to build the same 120-foot-high towers at seven other sites along public “right-of-way,” which could be along roads or sidewalks, or in medians.

Earlier this year, the company sent similar letters to communities in Connecticut, which have since banded together seeking action from the state’s public utilities authority.

The company’s plans differ from how other firms propose and build cellphone towers, which generally involves the purchase of private property and county approval before construction.

The county’s 45-day moratorium allows officials to evaluate requirements they could place on the towers. The steel tower construction is markedly different from how other communication infrastructure is built on public land, such as utility poles.

“The utility poles that go in the public right-of-way are generally designed to have some give or break away,” said Bernard Jimenez, deputy Fresno County planning director. “If you have a 120-foot steel tower with a 4-foot diameter and cement foundation, that’s not going to have a lot of give.”

County Counsel Dan Cederborg said the company could obtain rights to construct in public right-of-way, but typically the county requires a permit that allows access to the property.

Local governments have primary authority to approve tower sites.

Constance Gordon, California Public Utilities Commission information officer

While state law allows high-tech equipment on public property, he said, “It doesn’t stop the local agency from developing necessary standards within the zoning processes.”

The 45-day moratorium could be extended to 10 months because Cederborg expects the process to take months to resolve. He said the county will meet with companies that build towers, as well as other cities and affected agencies.

Representatives of AT&T told Fresno County supervisors Tuesday that they oppose the county’s moratorium. Cederborg said they weren’t the focus of this issue because they generally use cell towers on private property.

A spokeswoman for Mobilitie said the company works cooperatively with public agencies across the country and in California to improve technologies to meet current and future wireless demand.

“Most communities that we work with are excited to bring such technological innovation to their residents – opening new jobs and new services that support community growth,” said Colleen Williams of Merritt Group, a public relations agency that represents Mobilitie. “That forward view allows municipalities like these to stay ahead of the innovation curve and not be left behind.”

But, she added, “Jurisdictions that choose to create roadblocks are doing their citizens a disservice and are ultimately deepening the digital divide. As a result, carriers will move on to build and invest elsewhere.”

Cederborg said Fresno County isn’t trying to block access to better technology services. “If people want the services, these will have to go somewhere,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the California Public Utilities Commission said local agencies have the final say in the way towers are built.

“Local governments have primary authority to approve tower sites,” said Constance Gordon, a CPUC spokeswoman.

Fresno, Clovis concerned

In Mobilitie’s “Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity,” which is required before a company can build facilities in California, the company said it “does not intend to construct any facilities, other than equipment to be installed in existing buildings or structures.”

Under this state permit, Cederborg said, the company does not have authority to build towers on public land.

But Williams said the company is in the process of applying for an additional permit.

David Wolfe, Clovis city attorney, said the city could authorize an encroachment permit to allow construction in the city’s public right-of-way.

He said it appears Mobilitie has a “limited right of necessity,” which would require the city’s permission to build towers.

“We don’t intend on leasing our rights away for a cell tower,” Wolfe said. “Our concern is that this company isn’t very straightforward.”

Before building actual facilities, the state’s certificate says the company “must file for additional authority and submit to any necessary California Environmental Quality Act review.”

We’re not in a position to say no everywhere, but we can set criteria.

Scott Mozier, Fresno city public works director

Mobilitie also wrote to Fresno city officials explaining plans to build 120-foot towers at about six locations throughout the city.

The Fresno City Council conducted a recent workshop to propose new policies that would allow poles and other facilities in public right-of-way. The city likely will require permits before tall poles can be built.

Some of those guidelines could include prohibiting new poles in front of homes or apartments without construction of a block wall, setting poles back from intersections and driveways to maintain sight lines for motorists and require five feet of sidewalk clearance for pedestrians.

Fresno also has a height limit for towers of 45 feet. Any would require the public works director’s approval.

“We’re supportive of technology businesses and consumers’ having better service,” said Scott Mozier, Fresno’s public works director. “We’re not in a position to say no everywhere, but we can set criteria.”

He said state and federal court rulings support giving discretion to cities in granting wireless carriers access to city right-of-way.

Not just California

The state Public Utilities Commission documented several different issues with Mobilitie in other states. The agency reported the company failed to comply with reporting rules and didn’t make fee payments.

In its certification, the state ruled that the company now meets its guidelines after hiring a third-party firm to ensure that it meets rules in those states.

Earlier this year, Mobilitie sent letters to several Connecticut communities saying it was going to build 120-foot towers, which met with resistance from local officials who brought the issue to that state’s Public Utility Regulatory Authority.

Michael Milone, town manager in Cheshire, population 29,000, said the communities, many of which have centuries-old buildings, were told in writing by Mobilitie they had no recourse.

“This was like a demand letter telling us ‘this is what we’re going to do’ and gave us a map,” Milone said.

In Cheshire, he said, the company wanted to place antennas and equipment on existing structures such as poles, but other cities faced the prospect of 120-foot towers.

They did it to enough towns that it created a galvanized effort to stop them.

Michael Milone, town manager in Cheshire, Connecticut

“This is New England; we have Colonial roots we try to preserve and maintain,” he said. “People aren’t so excited about cell towers because it ruins the character of the landscape and our history.”

Communities across Connecticut banded together to work with the state’s consortium of cities and filed a complaint with the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

“It’s contrary to the way we do business in this state,” Milone said. The company sent enough letters “that it created a galvanized effort to stop them.”

He said the state authority already has jurisdiction over siting and heights of towers that Mobilitie didn’t recognize.

Now, Milone said, the cities’ lobbying group is working on legislation to keep companies from using heavy-handed methods in attempts to get their way.

“They may have accomplished what they wanted if they went about it the right way,” Milone said. “Now, there are such negative feelings toward these folks that I don’t think anyone will feel comfortable working with them.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin