Menifee city council reviews AT&T cell tower request in Wheatfield Park

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Although the public hearing was closed, the Menifee City Council was hesitant at its Nov. 6 meeting to make a decision to approve or deny a proposed AT&T 70-foot high, $1 million cell tower in Wheatfield Park.

Seeking more information about where the tower might be located other than the popular city park at 30627 Menifee Road, council members Lisa Sobeck and Matthew Liesemeyer said they could not make a decision on whether to uphold the city planning commission’s recommendation to deny the conditional use permit or overrule and approve the project that evening.

AT&T made the request to build the tower in the park that is managed by Valley-Wide Recreation and Park District, saying it would fill a large gap in the mobile phone coverage for the city and the Mt. San Jacinto College Menifee campus. AT&T representatives at the meeting said other locations for the tower were considered, including one on the college campus itself, but ruled out. A tower atop Bell Mountain used by AT&T was not close enough to another tower south of the city to allow full mobile phone coverage, particularly from vehicles.

The Menifee planning commission reviewed the proposal, sought public comment on the cell tower and determined that while it complied with all city building regulations, Wheatfield Park may not be the safest and most aesthetic location for such a tall tower. The commission recommended the council’s denial of the conditional use permit.

During the public hearing, called by the council that evening, seven residents made comments disapproving of the tower and one, as an AT&T customer, said it would be of great help. Those asking the council to uphold the planning commission’s denial argued the tower would not look good in the public park, would encourage graffiti, endanger Bell Middle School students and other children who might want to climb up on it, hinder nearby residents line of sight to the annual fireworks show and the surrounding mountains and was not really needed because AT&T customers could still call on their mobile phones in the company’s “gap” area.

The AT&T representatives said the tower is needed, particularly during high phone use during emergency situations, drivers using their phones in cars, the tower itself was designed to fit in well with the surrounding community homes and buildings, safety measures to keep off climbers are included and its design in compliance with all the city’s building codes. The representatives said the tower itself is the Taj Mahal of cell towers and includes a working clock system. The representatives showed a video presentation of how it would look in the park.

The council expressed concern if their denial of the tower would conflict with U.S. government communication regulations it might result in an expensive lawsuit. Federal communication regulations can override any state or local regulations concerning wireless communication systems if the public’s safety is of concern.

The Menifee city attorney said if the denial were made, it could result in a lawsuit brought by AT&T because of the federal regulations. The AT&T representatives said they could not comment on that possibility.

Sobeck asked if AT&T had other alternatives to fill their communication gap like smaller microwave boxes on existing utility poles. The AT&T representatives said it would be possible but would require perhaps “100s” of such boxes in the gap area. State laws regulate the size and location of the smaller boxes, which are permitted.

The other issue was the ownership and management of the park itself since it belongs to Valley-Wide Recreation and Park District. Councilmember Dean Deines asked the AT&T representatives if they were aware that there is a possibility the city could one day take ownership of the park and any tower at that time might have to be taken down. AT&T seeks to lease the space in the park from Valley-Wide Recreation and Park District, yet certain city building codes still apply to the property, which is the reason a conditional use permit is being sought by AT&T.

After almost an hour of discussion in the public hearing, the council made a motion to continue the decision and asked staff and the AT&T representatives to review its location and any other alternatives before the final decision is made. That decision could come at the Dec. 4 next regular council meeting.

The council heard a staff report about changes requested by the council in the city’s subdivision and grading ordinances that essentially amends the original subdivision and grading ordinances made by Riverside County before cityhood and updates the regulations to comply with new state requirements.

The list of changes was presented by the staff and adopted by the council following a public hearing that brought forth no public speakers.

The council also reviewed and discussed proposed campaign contribution limits for a possible ordinance requested by the ethics subcommittee Liesemeyer and Sobek.

The state’s Political Reform Act limits contributions to $7,800 from any committee, other than a political party committee for the November 2020 election.

Local jurisdictions, like Menifee, may enact a campaign ordinance that provides for additional or different campaign requirements and contribution limitations for committees active exclusively in its jurisdiction as long as the provisions are stricter than those in the Political Reform Act. Any changes would have to be posted on the Fair Political Practices Commission website.

Sobek initially suggested a limit of $2,800 per contributor, but the council as a whole, decided the state limit of $7,800 per contributor would be best and to stay with what the state limitations might be in the future. The state, according to Sobek, can change the limits every odd year with the next change in 2022. All contributions, whatever the amount, by law, must be reported by candidates to the Fair Political Practices Commission and are made public.

Tony Ault can be reached by email at tault@reedermedia.com.