When parents at Larchmont Charter School learned that Verizon Communications was planning to install a new wireless telecommunications facility in the bell tower of St. Ambrose Church, at 1271 N. Fairfax Ave., where the school’s Pre-Kindergarten through third grade campus is located, parents were concerned. Verizon had proposed the installation of nine new cell phone antennas in the bell tower, and was requesting a variance for the installation from the City of West Hollywood because the structure is lower than the legally required height of 80 feet. According to Verizon’s application, the installation is necessary because cell coverage for the area is inadequate, and there are no other acceptable buildings of legal height in the target area.
At a West Hollywood Planning Commission public hearing on the variance application, on Thursday, December 3, Commission Chair John Altschul noted that the Federal Telecommunications Act, which ensures citizen access to wireless communications services, requires cities to provide telecommunications companies with equipment locations, and can only prevent installations based on aesthetic or physical (e.g. seismic) concerns, not on potential effects of radio frequency emissions (which are often the basis for citizen fears regarding new equipment).
During the public comment portion of the hearing, however, Larchmont Charter parents presented 1,000 signatures opposing the installation, for a long list of reasons that did not include RF emissions. In more than an hour of individual two-minute testimonies, school parents, administrators and several nearby neighbors contended that:
- Verizon had not sufficiently demonstrated an actual current need for extended coverage in the area
- That the need claimed did not meet the city’s requirement of an “exceptional hardship” that would qualify for a variance
- That the new equipment to be installed in the bell tower could jeopardize the physical integrity of the 1924 structure
- That materials specified for the tower’s renovation for the installation could add to structural weaknesses and/or create fire hazards
- That the proposed site is less than the required 1,000 feet from not just one but six other cell towers
- That there have been no plans presented for seismic retrofits of the tower to compensate for the additional equipment weight
- That the tower remodeling for the installation will include closure of the now-open bell tower windows and result in significant aesthetic changes to the historic building
- That there was insufficient notice of the project to both school families and nearby neighbors
Planning Commissioners grilled the Verizon representatives about other possible locations within the ideal 1/2- to 1-mile radius for the target coverage area…particularly one which, as Altschul noted, might be better from a customer relations and marketing perspective than one that involves a school and a large group of upset stakeholders. Verizon representatives agreed that location searches involve a “delicate balance” between the needs of cell phone customers and local residents…and, after the opponents’ testimony, requested a continuance so they could research and respond to the issues raised.
Altschul, however, praised the the opponents for their organization, research and clear, specific presentations…and scolded Verizon for its apparent “lack of preparation,” calling much of their testimony “gobbledygook and double talk.” After a commissioner’s motion for the requested continuance failed to gain a second, the Commission voted unanimously to deny the variance application, based on the aesthetic concerns.
Verizon will have the chance to file an appeal, directly to the West Hollywood City Council, within 10 calendar days of the December 3 vote.