Sleepy Hollow resident challenges proposed cell tower at school

A 30-foot tower to improve cellphone service in Sleepy Hollow has won conditional county approval, but a neighbor is challenging the plan.

The tower, disguised as a water reservoir, is planned for the grounds of San Domenico School, the K-12 private school located at 1500 Butterfield Road north of San Anselmo. The project has been underway since 2018, Pete Shubin of Sequoia Deployment Services Inc. said at a county planning hearing Aug. 4. Sequoia is employed by Verizon Wireless, the project applicant.

“It fills a really big gap in coverage,” Shubin said. “He will provide good outdoor and indoor service for the community and the school.”

At least 35 community members spoke at the hearing by the Deputy Zoning Administrator, a planning official with the Marin County Community Development Agency. All supported the project.

On Tuesday, however, a longtime Sleepy Hollow resident filed an appeal against the approval of the project.

The caller, Steven Halpern, a Grammy-nominated musician, said his primary objection is that the tower’s location near school athletic fields could expose children to radiation in the form of electromagnetic fields or EMC.

He said the project violates Marin’s telecommunications policy, which advises “it is prudent to avoid siting new transmission facilities where prolonged exposure to EMFs will occur in residential neighborhoods and other locations. where people may be immunologically compromised, such as elementary schools, preschools, senior facilities, and hospitals.

Halpern, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1986, also said he was worried about his own exposure. He said he was diagnosed as being ultra-sensitive to these electromagnetic fields. He had symptoms such as inability to bend his elbow, insomnia and brain fog after installing a wireless meter in his home or being near an internet router, he said. he declares.

“We need cell service, but we also need a better, safer alternative,” Halpern said. He suggested that the tower be moved further out on the San Domenico property.

According to the county staff report, Verizon Wireless, school officials and members of the Sleepy Hollow Homes Association researched alternate sites and other designs, but none would work.

“All of these other locations have been discarded in favor of building a single site on a hill with the largest possible residential setbacks when county ordinances, property use, visual impacts and site function are all taken into account,” the report said.

A report on alternative sites and designs that have been analyzed is available at bit.ly/3QSCd2U. Verizon representative Heidi Flato said any final draft would have to meet the Federal Communications Commission’s security guidelines. She referred to the company’s website, wirelesshealthfacts.com.

The zoning decision and appeal comes following a 2020 house fire on Dutch Valley Lane in Sleepy Hollow. That day, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. had cut power due to high winds and fire danger, so landline telephone lines were disabled. Since there was no cellphone coverage, residents could not call 911.

A gardener working in the area that day had to climb the hill to call the fire department. It was too late for Jean Kinney, 96, who died at home. A man in the house was also injured.

“The Dutch Valley tragedy certainly had the effect of galvanizing the community, but those efforts had been underway for some time before that,” said Pete Mayer, president of the Sleepy Hollow Homes Association.

“I think it created a renewed sense of urgency,” he said. “It was really a question of not if, but when.”

Of the 60% of 833 Sleepy Hollow homeowners who responded to an association survey last year, “98.7% said they supported wireless phone coverage,” Mayer said.

“It was overwhelming – almost complete unanimity,” Mayer said. “You won’t get better than that unless the subject is puppies and ice cream.”

Mayer said he was sensitive to the health concerns raised by Halpern and others. But his association must respect the will of its inhabitants.

“We face clear and present dangers,” he said.

Sleepy Hollow’s location at “the interface between nature and the city” was an obvious fact to accept, Mayer added.

“And there’s the cold, hard truth that one of our residents died in her home,” he said. “The fact remains, we are going to have more fires.”

In addition to fire hazards, frequent power outages at PG&E mean residents are often unable to work from home remotely and students can’t do homework or attend classes online, Mayer said. Due to the neighborhood’s close proximity to nature, PG&E has implemented an automatic fire alarm system that shuts down power lines in windy and other fire hazard conditions.

“We’ve had eight power outages since the spring,” Mayer added. “And you have no way of knowing when the power will come back on because we don’t have cell phones. It’s a very vulnerable feeling.

In San Domenico, the situation is just as dire, said David Wise, financial director for the San Domenico school. Not only are there automatic power outages, but also scheduled maintenance by PG&E.

“We have another blackout scheduled for August 24, the first day of school,” Wise said. “It wouldn’t be a big deal for some other schools, but we have 140 boarding kids on campus who won’t be able to do their homework.”

Additionally, Wise said he was concerned that parents of boarders would not be able to contact their children to find out if they were okay in the event of a fire or other emergency.

Rich Shortall, executive coordinator of FireSafe Marin, said lack of cellular coverage is “the No. 1 issue” in the community.

“FireSafe Marin has an alert system that people can sign up for to receive notices,” he said. “But if cell phones don’t work here, what’s the point?”

Shortall, who sits on the board of the Ross Valley Fire Department and is chairman of the Sleepy Hollow Fire Protection District Board, said he was also concerned about ‘everyday’ issues such as medical crises where lives could be at risk if residents cannot dial 911 on their cell phones.

“It’s catastrophic,” said Shortall, a former San Francisco firefighter for 30 years.

A date for the appeal hearing is pending. Mayer estimated that if the appeal is denied and the project moves forward, the community could have cellular coverage by this time next year.

“There are a lot of compromises,” Mayer said of the differing opinions. “We choose to confront the issue of public safety in the best possible way.”

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