Scott and Amelia Chapman and their two young children love the Santa Rosa home they purchased at the north end of the junior college neighborhood in 2014.
After the turmoil of the housing crisis, which caused them lose a previous home and relocate out of the area for a time, the couple were eager to put down roots in Santa Rosa again.
But an unwanted neighbor has them rethinking those plans.
Verizon Wireless wants to erect a 70-foot-tall cellphone tower just 55 feet from their rear property line, a structure the company says it needs to improve cellular service in the area.
The prospect of a towering communications pole, even one camouflaged as a tree, has the Chapmans and several of their neighbors calling for the company to reconsider its plans.
They’re anxious about their health, concerned about their property values, angry the city would allow such a thing so close to homes and annoyed other locations aren’t being considered.
“This thing is completely disrupting our lives,” said Scott Chapman, a general contractor. “We spend most of our time in the backyard and this thing is going to be within 60 feet of us whenever we’re back there.”
Chapman said he and his wife are not anti-corporation or anti-technology, noting they are Verizon customers. But they contend there has to be a better place for such a tower than next to two apartment buildings and a dozen single-family homes.
Verizon says a dramatic increase in demand for voice and data services on its network is forcing it to build new wireless facilities to improve coverage and network capacity in the city. The company has a “significant coverage gap” in its network in the Santa Rosa Junior College area, and looked at several other locations before selecting the site behind the Sutter Hospice Thrift Store, at 510 Lewis Road.
The property is owned by a trust managed by Kurt Kunde, of the storied Sonoma County winemaking family. Reached in Switzerland on Friday, Kunde said neither he nor the other members of the trust would have any comment on the project.
The trust has agreed to lease a small corner of the property for a tower and 26-by-30 foot enclosure where various equipment would be housed. Terms of the lease were not disclosed.
The tower itself would house nine 6-foot-tall wireless directional panel antennas, hidden behind faux broadleaf branches.
But Chapman, who at a recent community meeting saw examples of the leafy material the company plans to use to conceal the tower, has serious doubts about how effective the camouflaging will be.
“It is going to be the tallest ‘tree’ in the neighborhood,” Chapman said. “This thing is huge. It’s not good for our neighborhood in any way.”
Standing in the backyard of his Lewrosa Way home last week, Chapman raised an arm at a 45-degree angle toward a patch of blue sky over his kids’ playhouse, asserting that the tower would loom large over their backyard.
“This is about the quality of life in our home,” Chapman said.
It’s not just aesthetics that worry area residents. Deborah Smith, who lives around the corner from the Chapmans on Slater Street, said she has genuine health concerns about living in such close proximity to the constant exposure to the radiation emitted by wireless antennas.
“I don’t want to be a guinea pig,” said Smith, a research scientist who works from home. “I do believe the jury is really out on the health issues.”
She notes that many of the studies that purport to show no adverse health impacts are 20 years old, and new studies are leading some countries to impose stricter regulations on wireless exposure than those in the United States.
Verizon has submitted an engineering report to the city saying the “base station” poses no health risks. Most radiation would be directed toward the horizon, not downward, and people at ground level will receive a small fraction of the public radiation exposure limits set by federal law, according to a report by Hammett and Edison, a Sonoma-based consultancy hired for the project.
“We’ve worked with (Santa Rosa) to develop the best plan to meet community design standards, as well as our own,” Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said in an email.
Verizon’s report notes that height is one of the key reasons radiation poses no threat to people on the ground.
In addition, the company says the tower would be 75 feet away from any habitable structure, as the law requires.
The consultants said they reviewed a number of other potential locations in the area, but weren’t able to find another suitable site. Other locations considered included:
La Palapa Restaurant, which was deemed “not a good fit for the tenant.”
Fire Station 11, which was not selected for unknown reasons.
Franklin Park, which would need a zoning change from residential, a process that could take $15,000 and up to nine months, according to city officials;
Santa Rosa Memorial Park, which said it was not interested.
First Congregational Church, which lacked the space.
Town & Country Shopping Center, which was deemed too far from the dead zone to help.
Verizon’s request requires a conditional use permit, which must be approved by the Planning Commission. A decision by the panel can be appealed to the City Council, said city planner Andy Gustavson.
Federal law requires local jurisdictions to act on such requests in a timely manner. The application was filed April 10, and the city is trying to make a decision by Aug. 24, Gustavson said.
As submitted, the project faces one potentially key problem, Gustavson said. While the pole itself appears to be 75 feet away from surrounding structures, the 26-by-30 foot enclosure at the base may not be, possibly requiring a revision to the site plan, he said.
Residents are hoping the company, or the Kunde family, get that message and look again for a new site.
“We just don’t believe this is the only place it can go,” Chapman said.