La Jolla Community Planners narrowly approve third cell tower for Cliffridge Park

By Pat Sherman

During its April 3 monthly meeting at the La Jolla Rec Center, La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) board trustees narrowly approved installation of a third cell tower in Cliffridge Park, requested by AT&T.

A representative for AT&T provided a full review on the proposal, after it was pulled from the LJCPA’s March consent agenda.

Representing AT&T, Debra DePratti, whose company orchestrated installation of existing Sprint and T-Mobile cell phone towers at Cliffridge Park, said AT&T’s proposed 30-foot-tall faux Eucalyptus tree topped with 12 panel antennas and an adjacent equipment enclosure would be located next to Sprint’s existing cell facility. It would be built into a slope and not visible from the sports field directly to the east. City officials asked AT&T to replace invasive ice plant on the slope with natural landscaping.

During its March 25 meeting, the La Jolla Shores Permit Review Committee (PRC) voted 4-3-0 that findings could be made to approve a conditional use permit (CUP) for the project.

DePratti said the tower is needed because AT&T has weak reception in the area. A notice about the project was mailed to 175 homes in the immediate vicinity.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, along with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees Electromagnetic Field (EMF) levels, prohibits state and local governments from denying cell sites based on potential health risks in relation to EMF emissions.

“Local jurisdictions don’t have any purview,” DePratti said, “but as part of our application process we are required to submit a report that demonstrates compliance with FCC regulations and the report that was prepared states that AT&T is operating at 4.6 percent of the allowed EMF level.”

DePratti said the EMF level emitted from an operating cell site is no different than the level emitted from fluorescent lights, a cell phone, microwave or hair dryer. The EMF report can be obtained by e-mailing Depratti at

Meeting attendees nevertheless expressed concern about radiation levels.

Sam Armstrong, who has served on the board of the Moores Cancer Center for more than 25 years, told those in attendance there is still a lot of debate surrounding the safety of radiation emitted by cell phone towers.

“There are a lot of very smart people out there that say it could be a problem,” he said, noting that the government once told people that there was no risk associated with asbestos or cigarette smoking.

Armstrong said the FCC regulations were established many years ago, pointing to more recent reports of birds in the immediate vicinity of cell towers losing their feathers and fleeing their nests.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged the FCC to reconsider its radiation standards, and does not recommend cell towers be located next to schools, such as Torrey Pines Elementary (adjacent to Cliffridge Park).

“Kids are much more vulnerable to medicines, radiation — you name it,” Armstrong said. “Their bodies are growing very rapidly and their cells are far more sensitive to changes in the environment than adults, by far.

“Basically, by approving this, you’re throwing the experiment to your kids or your grandkids who are playing on the soccer fields saying, ‘It’s OK, we’ll figure it out later.’ … There’s a smarter place to put (the cell tower).”

La Jolla Shores Association Chair Tim Lucas, who also serves on the La Jolla Shores PRC and pulled the item from the LJCPA’s consent agenda for further discussion, said there should be a city master plan showing how many cell phone antenna sites are permitted in a given area.

DePratti said Verizon is building another site in the Shores, at Allen Field, so there should be no concern about additional cell providers setting up shop at Cliffridge Park.

La Jolla Shores Association member and project opponent Mary Coakley-Munk, along with La Jolla Youth, Inc. President Mike Wintringer, who oversees

youth baseball play at the park, met with DePratti at the site in December. Wintringer said La Jolla Youth, Inc. spends $100,000 a year to maintain Cliffridge Park, and is concerned that work trucks would damage the sports field during construction.

DePratti said her client informed the city’s Real Estate Assets department that they would repair, reseed or re-sod the entire field, and repair any irrigation damaged during construction.

Coakley-Munk said AT&T’s equipment enclosure would be too close to the sports field.

“I am very concerned to think that Real Estate Assets and Park and Recreation would allow this without speaking with their tenant (La Jolla Youth, Inc.),” she said.

However, LJCPA trustee Phil Merten, who supports the project, said the public demands better reception and noted that children are only in the park several hours a week, during games, limiting their exposure.

“It’s in probably one of the best locations in La Jolla that we have for this type of use,” Merten said, adding that the faux tree’s height would place the antennas “way up there out of the play area.”

Merten said damage to the field could be thwarted by building the tower “piecemeal” with scaffolding, if necessary.

Trustee Ray Weiss, who also supports the project, said he was not swayed by radiation fears.

“Anyone who carries a cell phone without the same concerns is a hypocrite,” he said.

DePratti’s construction manager, Tim Henion, said the work could not be done without driving onto the field. However, he said a lightweight truck with a lift could be used, in lieu of a crane, to keep tires from trenching the field.

Trustee Dan Courtney made a motion not to approve the project based on its size and scale compared to existing cell towers in the park, its potential to expand, its proximity to schools and potential damage to public facilities (the leased field). His motion further requested AT&T seek a location further away from playgrounds and schools. Trustee Fran Zimmerman seconded his motion.

Though Courtney’s motion passed the committee by a vote of 7-6, a discussion ensued about whether trustee Patrick Ahern (filling in that evening as chair), could weigh in on the matter, creating a tie that would cause Courtney’s motion to fail. After some discussion and consultation of Robert’s Rules of Order (the leading text on parliamentary procedures), it was determined that Ahern could not change the vote by weighing in. However, he subsequently requested a justification and clarification of Courtney’s motion to assure it passed muster with city officials.

“The reason I’m doing this is to maintain the credibility of the Community Planning Association,” Ahern said. “If we go forward with a motion that isn’t clear and we have no grounds for the basis of our decision, I’m uncomfortable with that.”

The LJCPA voted to rehear the item, although by the time they voted on Courtney’s “clarified” motion, project opponent and trustee Bob Collins had left the meeting, creating a 6-6 tie, which was broken by Ahern, who voted against Courtney’s motion.

In the end, the LJCPA vote 6-7 in favor of a new motion to support the project (essentially affirming the PRC’s favorable March motion, which includes a mandate that all trenching be done outside the sports field fence). Trustee Robert Mapes suggested adding to the motion that the tower is built in a manner least destructive to the adjacent sports field.

Ahern suggested that DePratti meet with La Jolla Youth, Inc. to discuss construction details further.

LJCPA member Don Schmidt said he appreciated trustees consulting Robert’s Rules of Order, though he cautioned the board to find an officer or outside consultant designated by the LJCPA to serve as its expert in parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order.

“This organization is going to find itself in a world of hurt if it doesn’t get a handle on this,” Schmidt said. “I’m all about process and you’ve got to do it correctly, or you’re going to be … at risk of a potential lawsuit somewhere down the line.”