PINOLE -- The City Council, amid growing public ire, voted unanimously Tuesday to postpone for 60 days any move to undo a controversial lease with Verizon to build a cellphone antenna tower in Pinole Valley Park, and give both sides time to research legal and other issues.
The postponement did little to appease a gallery of about 20 critics, some of whom had urged the council to stand up to what they characterized as Verizon's bullying and to rescind the lease that it ratified in July by 3-2, with Councilman Phil Green and Mayor Debbie Long voting no.
The lease, on a 1,000-square-foot parcel in the eastern section of the park, is for up to 25 years at a starting monthly rent of $2,200.
Since then, the state has notified the city that a cellphone tower, as a commercial use, would violate the terms of a federal, state-administered grant that helped Pinole buy the land for the park in the 1970s. The state also noted that the Pinole Valley fire station, built on an approximately 1.25-acre lot carved out of the western side of the park, is similarly in violation as a use other than outdoor recreation, absent an onerous, multistep conversion process that would include detailed environmental and other studies and providing replacement property of similar value and convenience for recreational use.
The opponents of the cellphone antenna have voiced concerns that electromagnetic waves emitted from the tower could cause cancers in neighbors; that diesel tanks supplying emergency generators could fuel wildland fires; and that a 78-foot-tall cell phone tower, even if camouflaged as a tree, would spoil the pristine nature of the park.
In a letter to council members late Monday, Verizon offered a foretaste of its likely legal posture in the event state and federal restrictions should derail the company's project.
"Even if the state is correct in its interpretation of the legal restrictions on use of the park, that simply means that the city is in breach of the lease covenants of quiet enjoyment and title," attorney Paul Albritton of San Francisco-based Mackenzie & Albritton wrote in part.
"In contrast,... by rescinding the lease, the city would commit an immediate, definite breach, and subject itself to potentially significant liability," Albritton added.
Former Mayor Jack Meehan said the city did not have the authority to circumvent the grant's prohibition on commercial use of the purchased parkland. He said that if Verizon were to go to court to enforce the lease, the city would have the state and federal government on its side.
Much of the public ire Tuesday was in reaction to a possible scenario, cited in a report that accompanied the meeting agenda, to "co-locate" the cellphone tower on the grounds of the Pinole Valley Fire Station -- right across Pinole Valley Road from Ellerhorst Elementary School.
Officials labored vainly to deflect the anger, protesting that the co-location scenario was not something the city embraced, but rather an idea tossed out by Verizon, and that they reported it in a spirit of transparency. By then, the report, delivered by city officials Tuesday in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, had widely been construed by cellphone tower opponents as¿ a city proposal.
Opponents also objected to a reference to eminent domain in the report. Albritton said that Verizon, as a telephone corporation under the Public Utilities Code, can invoke eminent domain to condemn property. But several officials said they doubt such a scenario is likely.
A 60-day hiatus would put the Verizon lease matter on the Dec. 17 council agenda, or 63 days from Tuesday's meeting.
Albritton, who attended Tuesday's meeting, said Verizon was tendering Pinole an "olive branch," and pledged that Verizon would not seek a building permit or exercise any other rights during a 60-day delay.
Opponents urged the council to terminate the lease right away and stop running up legal fees in what they perceive as an effort to accommodate Verizon.
Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. ¿Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.