This is the story of how a small group of concerned homeowners challenged the city of Newport Beach and Verizon Wireless to prevent the installation of a cell tower in Spyglass Hill Park.
On Sept 10, 2015 the zoning administrator for Newport Beach approved a Class 3 minor use permit to allow Verizon to construct a cell tower on the corner of Spyglass Hill Rd and El Capitan. Legal notification of the cell tower consisted of mailing postcards to homeowners within 300 feet of the site, putting a small sign in the park, and publishing notice in the Daily Pilot. Two homeowners showed up at the first hearing to protest, but the zoning administrator refused to hear medical arguments and approved the permit.
When word finally leaked out that the cell tower was approved, several Spyglass Hill families banded together on 9/22 and decided to appeal the permit. The Horn family filed the official appeal on 9/24 at a cost of $4500 (shared by 38 families) to stop Verizon and force another public hearing in front of the city planning commissioners. The commissioners would listen to arguments by both sides and then vote either to allow or deny the permit. The appeal letter was written by Pam Munro, a dear friend and attorney by trade, in one day to meet the 9/24 deadline.
A small committee of concerned homeowners from Spyglass Hill was formed to fight Verizon. On the committee were Bruce and Laurie Horn, Eddie and Roya Mehrfar, Reza and Tara Lotfi, Harry and Renee Skinner, and Brenda McCroskey. Our committee faced several challenges to get prepared for the appeal. The first challenge we faced was how to communicate information about the appeal and the upcoming hearing to all homeowners. We believed a very strong community turnout at the hearing would improve our chances for success.
Eddie graciously used his company servers to construct a polling website to provide all homeowners an opportunity to vote either for or against the cell tower. We also decided to use the website for updates to provide homeowners with the latest news on the appeal. To help alert homeowners of the appeal, we posted info on Nextdoor Neighbor, placed large banners around Spyglass Hill Park, and put a warning flyer on every doorknob in the communities of Spyglass Hill and Harbor Ridge.
Another challenge we faced was the inability to use health related concerns as evidence to deny the permit. The FCC and FDA regulate wireless telephone companies. Both agencies have ruled health related arguments are exempt from consideration to stop cell tower installations. Our defensive strategy was limited to disproving the facts supporting the findings in the case, diminution of home values, aesthetics of the cell tower, and challenging the coverage gaps submitted as evidence for placement of the cell tower.
After careful analysis of the Verizon submission packet, we determined much of information used in the request to obtain approval was inaccurate and misleading.
Pictures and renderings were not drawn scale and the coverage gaps were based on simulations to show bad signal strength. Verizon conveniently failed to show signal strength gains from two new cell sites recently approved at Ford Rd and Corporate Plaza.
The public hearing to decide on the appeal was held on 11/5 at City Hall. Several homeowners showed up along with an attorney and 3 engineers from Verizon. The zoning administrator began by presenting the case supporting the city’s decision to approve the cell tower permit. The Planning Commissioners appeared ready to support approval of the permit based on the findings presented.
Bruce Horn took the lead role as the appellant and proceeded to expose the inaccuracies and misrepresentation of evidence by Verizon utilizing a 10 minute PowerPoint presentation. The highlight of the presentation occurred when two very large trash cans were introduced as an exhibit to replicate the actual size of the proposed radome that would sit on top of the light post. Verizon claimed the cell tower would “blend in with the existing development of the neighborhood” and not be noticeable. This was the turning point of the hearing as the commissioners could not stop looking at, and referring to the trash cans. The Verizon attorney and engineers were ambushed, unable to provide an acceptable response to the Commissioners.
Dr. Harry Skinner then made a short presentation on how RF signals disperse from cell towers and the potential danger to children playing in the park. Eddie presented details of the online polling site showing 97% of the 250 votes were opposed to the cell tower. Renee Skinner followed with an emotional plea not to place a radiation tower in our park citing decisions by the LA and Huntington Beach school systems not to allow cell tower sites near schools. Brenda McCroskey provided solid evidence of diminution of home values if a cell tower was constructed in the park. Several other homeowners proudly stepped forward to express their opinions and request the commissioners deny the permit for Spyglass Hill Park.
The public portion of the hearing was then closed and the commissioners began discussing the merits of the appeal. The Verizon attorney was grilled by the commissioners for submitting diagrams and renderings of the proposed cell tower not drawn to scale. The attorney sensing defeat then requested a continuance to regroup and come back at a later date.
In the end, the planning commissioners voted 5-0 to overturn the Verizon permit without prejudice. The landslide decision to deny was a great victory for Spyglass Hill and surrounding communities. Verizon and their slick attorney were taken to the woodshed by a small but very determined group of homeowners.
Even today, many homeowners still do not understand how significant and precedent setting this decision was for residents in Newport Beach. Had this first cell tower in a residential neighborhood been approved, other telecom companies would surely follow to co-locate or build new cell towers. The environmental impact and negative health effects of cell tower radiation would have resulted in diminished home values and quality of life in Newport Beach.
Addendum to this article
On December 2, 2015 Verizon’s attorney filed a supplemental appeal against the Planning Commissioner’s ruling to deny the Minor Use Permit for a cell tower. This set the stage for a final appeal to the City Council of Newport Beach to either approve or deny the permit.
On January 11th Verizon withdrew its appeal and walked away from the planned cell tower at Spyglass Hill Park. We believe senior officials at Verizon reviewed the facts in this case and determined the chance of overturning the ruling of the Planning Commissioners was futile.
Bruce Horn lives in Corona del Mar, has a degree in Business Finance and Marketing (USC) and has been in the food brokerage business for four decades.
Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org