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Mount Soledad rejects cell phone facility in their neighborhood

Siding with Mount Soledad residents, the La Jolla Community Planning Association overwhelmingly opposed a proposal by cell phone provider T-Mobile to site a wireless communication facility in a single-family neighborhood in La Jolla.

T-Mobile is seeking a neighborhood use permit from the city of San Diego to construct a new, 20-foot-high light standard supporting three panel antennas and one GPS antenna in the public right-of-way on the southeast corner of Thunderbird Lane and Soledad Road. Associated equipment would be located in a subterranean vault adjacent to the light pole.

At the planning association’s July 5 meeting, T-Mobile representative Mike Morgansen said cell phone reception on Mount Soledad is poor, and that residential property is the only place to site a cell phone installation, since there is no commercial or industrial development nearby.

“This particular site is meant to fill a gap in coverage going around the entire south and southwest portion of Mount Soledad,” said Morgansen, pointing out cellular communications require an interlocking network. “In order for a network to function, you have to be able to go from Point A to Point B and beyond without interruption, which is clearly not the case in this particular area.

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“The problems with this site is we don’t have any alternatives, anything outside residential property in the neighborhood. We can’t go off to the side because it drops down into the canyons. There’s nowhere else we can go.”

Morgansen noted the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the cell phone industry, mandates that cell phone carriers address insufficiencies in coverage.

During a question-and-answer session following his presentation, Morgansen was asked if Kate Sessions public park further down the mountain might not be a viable siting alternative for a cell phone facility. Morgansen replied Kate Sessions would not be feasible. “There’s a lot of difference in elevation,” he said. “It wouldn’t come close to covering (cellular communications) in this area.”

La Jolla Realtor Rosa Lee Saliba said putting cellular antennas on light poles runs counter to the city’s policy of undergrounding all utilities. “It also runs contrary to the city’s policy of locating them outside residential areas,” she said. “The (cellular) installation cannot be integrated into the architecture of the surrounding properties as required by the municipal code. A 30-foot pole with minor structures looks ugly. We have explicit rights under the law to enjoy our property. We also have the right to maintain our property’s value in La Jolla. If they can install these in our neighborhood - they can put them anywhere in La Jolla. Our beautiful city is too nice to waste with a jungle of cellular towers.”

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Saliba added visible structures like light poles do affect a real estate buyer’s decision on purchasing real property.

A petition was presented to the planning association with numerous names of Mount Soledad residents opposed to having a cellular facility placed in their neighborhood. Several neighbors spoke out, claiming the cellular facility would be obtrusive and warning it could possibly interfere with water and sewer operations. It was also pointed out that a cellular facility might pose a danger to young children playing in the area who wouldn’t know to avoid the facility.

Luke Lucas, senior manager of the West Region for T-Mobile USA, said the proposed cellular facility on Mount Soledad would be unobtrusive. “Nothing would be visible other than a 20-foot streetlight with a cell site canister the exact same dimension as the pole,” he said. “To the naked eye, it doesn’t look anything more than a normal street light.”

T-Mobile, according to Morgansen, has been averaging 30 to 40 complaints per month of gaps in cellular coverage in the Mount Soledad area.

Lucas added there is a proposed cell phone facility consisting of eight antennas mounted within a cupola on the rooftop of the existing La Jolla Alta clubhouse roof at 1570 Alta La Jolla. But he added that space is allotted to T-Mobile competitors Verizon and Cingular, who’ve spent more than three years in permitting and designing the Alta La Jolla Clubhouse facility, and are about to get their approval for an expansion of the roof that will only accommodate two carriers.

Lucas noted cell phone use is widespread and rapidly growing amongst the U.S. population. USA Today reported recently that 78 percent of U.S. households have a mobile phone versus 53 percent five years ago. RCR Wireless reports that 77 percent of U.S. adults have a cell phone.

Karen Lynch-Ashcraft, project manager in the city’s Development Services Department, said the city does not have as much authority to regulate cellular carriers who site their facilities in public right-of-ways. “It’s like a public utility,” she said. “There’s a public easement for utilities, sidewalks, things like that. The way it is set up they have the same rights as public utilities going into the public right-of-way. We realize that residential is a sensitive area, although the only thing we can regulate in a public right-of-way is time, place and manner. Technically, the industry could put up their own pole. We’re trying to encourage them to use the public right-of-way.”

Lucas said it will be up to the San Diego City Council to decide whether to site a cellular facility on Thunderbird Lane and Soledad Road. The prospective site would have to first be reviewed by other La Jolla advisory groups, as well as the City Planning Commission.

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