BENICIA -- Facing a deadline, the Planning Commission has approved a cell tower at the Southampton Shopping Center despite concerns it could expose employees to radio waves.
The commission voted 5-1 last week to approve AT&T's proposed 43-foot telecommunications tower, which will resemble a clock tower -- without a clock, that is -- and be built on two parking spaces in the center's southwest corner.
AT&T officials have been pursuing the project for months. The original project application was submitted in November 2012, but several delays have slowed its progress -- including a city request to redesign the tower to blend in with nearby buildings. The tower's 12 antennas will be enclosed by the structure, which will be visible from Interstate 780. It also will provide potential space for center merchants to place signs promoting their businesses.
According to project materials, the tower will boost wireless capacity of Benicia customers and fill a coverage gap created by AT&T's planned removal of its Martinez tower, which the network says is too tall and causes interference. The facility's goal is to serve homes, businesses and motorists on 780 in the area bounded by Southampton Road, West Seventh Street and Military West.
Competitors Metro PCS and T-Mobile already have roof-mounted towers at the center.
Despite the supposed public benefit, Ace Hardware store owner Gene Pedrotti asked the panel to reschedule the vote to allow more tenants to weigh in. He said many business owners in the center were unaware of the project.
"My colleagues don't know about it," said Pedrotti, who's been a center tenant for more than two decades. "Nobody is aware of it. There's hundreds of employees under these towers ... that's a concern as an employer."
Under the city's municipal code, property owners within 300 feet of a project must be notified. Notice also must be posted on the project site, which the city did last month and again on Thursday morning after learning the original fliers had been torn down, principal planner Amy Million said.
However, the city was not legally required to send notice to area residential and commercial tenants.
Although some commissioners expressed interest in postponing the decision, city officials told them that AT&T would have to agree to the delay because federal law requires local governments to process applications for wireless communication facilities "within a reasonable period of time."
That deadline -- which already was extended once -- expired the day of the meeting.
When commissioner Steve Young asked whether the project could be delayed 30 days, AT&T site-acquisition lead Stephen Graham said he wasn't authorized to grant the request. Under Federal Communications Commission rules, failure to meet the deadline would have enabled AT&T to sue the city.
According to the applications materials, AT&T evaluated potential sites at Benicia High School and Benicia Middle School; however, district Superintendent Janice Adams told the Times-Herald the middle school wasn't discussed in casual talks with AT&T more than a year ago.
AT&T further claimed the district declined its offer to lease space. But Adams said no formal proposal was made.
When Young pressed for details, Graham backpedaled.
"I can't make a statement on that without going back to verify exactly what happened," Graham said. "But certainly an outreach was made ... and it was not successful."
Young was the only commissioner to vote against the proposal.