SOLANA BEACH — Cell phone coverage in the coastal area of Solana Beach may soon be a little better, but not as good as it could be, according to officials from AT&T Mobility.
City Council at the Sept. 24 meeting granted a conditional use permit to build a new wireless communications facility on top of CVS Pharmacy at 305 S. Coast Hwy. 101.
When the project was first presented in March, council said it looked too boxy and asked AT&T to come back in May with design alternatives. The company was granted a continuance to July to research more options.
But after considering other alternatives, AT&T officials said they couldn’t find a design that would provide the necessary radio frequency to offer better service to customers on Cedros Avenue.
The company asked council members via email to consider the original proposal, but at the July meeting, council asked for evidence that there would be a significant gap in coverage without the proposed new facility.
AT&T officials said they found an alternative location but could not get approval for use by the property owner and asked council at the September meeting to again consider the original plan.
As proposed the facility would include 16 equipment cabinets and two GPS antennas in a platform that would be 22 feet long and 20 feet wide.
The enclosure would match the existing structure and contain 12 new antennas and other necessary equipment.
AT&T was planning to use antennas that are 34 feet, 6 inches tall, requiring the enclosure to be 35 feet above the existing grade.
A third-party consultant determined a gap in coverage exists but smaller antennas could provide sufficient coverage.
According to the law, wireless communications facilities cannot be denied based on health fears from radio frequencies. However, cities have discretion when it comes to aesthetics.
City policy states the facilities should be located “where least visible to the public and where least disruptive to the appearance of the host property.”
As council members appeared to favor an enclosure that would be 2 feet shorter, AT&T officials said that may necessitate building another facility elsewhere, noting two structures could be more intrusive than one.
But when questioned they said they hadn’t looked into the possibility of co-locating the equipment in an existing facility.
John Osborne, AT&T’s director of external affairs, said his company put “a great deal of work into” trying to achieve its coverage objectives while also making the project fit into the community character.
The city attorney said carriers don’t have a right to ideal coverage or the most efficient facility.
Based on that and the city policy, Councilman Mike Nichols said he and his colleagues must look at the quality and compatibility of design, screening and the visual quality of the surrounding areas.
“Although those antennas are screened from view, they do add significant bulk to the roof of that building, especially at the street frontage on Highway 101, which is a very critical street frontage for the public to view the property from,” Nichols said.
“In my opinion I think it significantly detracts from the façade of that architecture of that building and it poses a greater impact on the visual quality of the surrounding area,” he added.
“Obviously we want to have good coverage for our community,” Nichols, at AT&T customer, said, adding that council’s final decision is about more than just the aesthetics.
“It’s about how it appears to the community,” he said. “This is really our only opportunity to have any input on this. Once a facility has been established, by federal law we have no ability to talk about the aesthetics on it whatsoever so this is sort of a precedent-setting situation.”
His colleague agreed and voted 5-0 to approve a 33-foot facility.
When story poles were installed on top of CVS the city received only one letter of opposition, but it was not a view impairment claim.