On December 16, 2021, Santa Cruz County’s Planning and Zoning Commissioners approved a conditional use permit for a communication tower at 286 Elgin Canelo Road, on a lot adjacent to Sonoita Vineyards. The property, which is zoned General Rural, is owned by Vina Sonoita, LTD, a Dutt family business.
The structure, to be built by Pinnacle Consulting, will consist of a 100-foot wireless steel monopole tower (which does not require lighting) placed within a 30 x 30-foot fenced area. It will initially provide service for Verizon, but there is space on the tower and in the equipment shelter for two additional service providers. The tower will fill gaps and enhance coverage to residents and businesses, plus travelers using SR 83.
“I am really excited … for all of us to not drop calls all the time,” said Lori Reynolds of Sonoita Vineyards, adding that cell phone reception in her area is horrible. “I have so many customers who come out to the vineyard and I have to provide them hard copy maps for all the other vineyards,” pointing out that many visitors rely on Google Maps which drop in the area. She also said that during the pandemic when Elgin School was closed, she had to drive her children to the school parking lot so they could connect on Zoom for classroom assignments and research.
According to Frank Dillon, SCC Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Director, there were three letters in opposition and four letters in support of the project. P&Z Commissioners Gutfahr, Padilla, Campana, Bell, and Heiss voted in favor of conditional approval. Commissioner Pottinger voted in opposition.
A cell tower that has been erected in Rain Valley was a subject of much more controversy than the tower at Sonoita Vineyards. Clear Talk, a company from California, submitted a request in 2016 in the Rain Valley area which became highly contentious. The original request for a 195-foot tower was denied in August 2016. Clear Talk resubmitted the request to the County in December 2016, stating T-Mobile would be providing service, with hopes of renting tower space to other carriers.
Several residents spoke against the proposal claiming the tower would be an eyesore, lower property values, block their views, and some voiced objections to tower lighting. The Commission tabled the vote pending a third meeting in January 2017 to give Clear Talk time to consider alternate sites.
At the January meeting, Clear Talk briefed that they had located three sites, but ruled out all three as non-viable. After two and one-half hours of debate and an Executive Session for legal advice, the Commission voted two to one in favor of the tower.
Within a month, an appeal was filed by a resident claiming the commission violated Open Meeting Law in their deliberations. The appeal was heard in Superior Court who issued a decision in October 2018, affirming the conditional use permit for the tower and stating that the plaintiffs failed to meet the burden of proof necessary to prove the alleged violation. The Court also stated that the benefits to the community at large of having cellular coverage trumped the aesthetic objections raised by the neighboring property owners.
Eventually, the tower was built, and electricity wired to the site. At some point, Clear Talk sold the tower to Florida-based Vertical Bridge. To date (over five years later), no provider has added equipment and activated the site. Residents and travelers still face problems with internet and cell phone coverage in that area.
T-Mobile is moving forward to activate the Rain Valley tower. Mike Fulton, T-Mobile Phoenix Market Director, commented that T-Mobile will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars over the next three years to supply rural areas in Arizona with 5G coverage. “We merged with Sprint a little over a year ago and part of the conditions of that merger was to provide decent rural broadband signal. It’s about closing the digital divide for people in the States that have not had access to the high-speed internet,” said Fulton. “The problem we face is that people want the coverage, but they don’t want to see a tower,” he added. Although Fulton was hesitant to specify a date of completion, when ask if this could be completed this year, his response was, “Absolutely.”
Balancing the aesthetics of having a tower within sight of one’s home with the benefits of cellular coverage and data services remains a challenge in rural America. Although many people think a tower will devalue their property, prospective buyers may lose interest in properties that lack quality services. The pandemic has increased the need for coverage as more people work from home. Some people believe that the 5G production of electromagnetic radiation is harmful for people and animals. According to the World Health Organization, there is limited research on the frequencies used in 5G.
As federal, state, and local governments focus on deploying better communication to rural areas, these issues are polarizing small communities as they weigh the pros and cons of advanced communication towers. Do the benefits outweigh the risks or do the risks outweigh the benefits?