Words and their meanings came into play more than once during Tuesday’s all-day hearing downtown for the Alki neighbors appealing the city’s approval of eight more cell-phone antennas for the “nonconforming” apartment building near their homes (photo above; previous coverage here). Dictionary definitions even were introduced as evidence, and the bottom line to the city and cell company’s arguments seemed to be “more” means “less” – read our full report to see why, including dueling simulations of what the new installation might look like:
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“Our neighborhood is tight. Call us the Alki Hill gang,” joked Jim Borrow at one point as he presented his case, on behalf of his neighborhood, to deputy Hearing Examiner Ann Watanabe on Tuesday, asking her to overturn city planners’ ruling in favor of Verizon‘s bid to add eight more antennas to the roof of the apartment building that is literally out of place in his neighborhood.
At issue, what’s happening on the roof of the Soundcrest Apartments, built in the ’50s in the middle of land zoned for single-family homes near the west end of Admiral Way — 6609 SW Admiral, to be precise (map). Verizon has three antennas on its roof and applied in March 2007 to add eight more; screening is now required, to hide the antennas from public view, so Verizon was planning to create a “penthouse” structure around all 11 of its eventual antennas. In June 2007, city planners said yes – and that’s where Borrow and his neighbors’ fight began in earnest.
More than half a dozen of those neighbors had front-row seats in the hearing room on the 40th floor of the city Municipal Tower, a block east and uphill from the smaller City Hall building. Several of them testified before the day was out, too. But for much of the time, they watched as Borrow and another neighbor, Karen Clegg, faced off with city planner Jerry Suder, Verizon-hired lawyer Chuck Maduell from Davis Wright Tremaine, and their two expert witnesses.
The day started with a twist for Borrow and Clegg, when they learned that Joan Carson, the city planner who prepared the approval of the antenna application, was out sick and wouldn’t be showing up for the hearing. Much of their case had called for questioning her; instead, they had to settle for questioning Suder, her boss.
Opening his case, Borrow noted that the neighbors had not hired a lawyer: “We’re not a wealthy neighborhood and we’re not legally trained, but we’ve done our best to prepare. Don’t think less of our case if it’s not as formal.”
His main point was that “the evidence will show a nonconforming building has become the attractive focus of uses never meant to be there when it was initially built” and that the new antennas, which along with the existing three are to be encased in a “penthouse” atop the building, would be “much more visually intrusive” than the city and Verizon had claimed.
How intrusive? The two sides have dueling “photosimulations” of what that penthouse — envisioned at 16 feet wide, 11 feet high — would look like. Here’s Verizon’s, prepared by its architect, with a perspective looking down the street:
That’s looking east. So is this one, done by Noreen Shinohara, a third-year architect intern working for the neighborhood (she briefly testified during today’s proceedings), looking from a closer perspective:
And, without the “penthouse,” here’s the challengers’ photo of how that angle of the building looks today:
Neighborhood views, the cell structure’s effect on them, were one of the key points brought up throughout the day. When Suder presented his part of what you would call the defense if this had been a court hearing, he contended that the “penthouse” will actually be an improvement over the currently unscreened antennas, at least as city code regards it, since it will bring a “residential character” to something (the antennas) that currently do not look residential.
Their eventual height was an issue that never did quite seem to get resolved; in spots, the apartment building is 28 feet high, which would mean that depending on placement, the 11-foot-high “penthouse” for the antennas would reach up 39 feet, higher than what’s currently allowed for such facilities.
Presenting his opening statements on behalf of Verizon, Maduell called the cell penthouse “not significantly intrusive … because we are expanding on the rooftop of the only multifamily structure in the area, and we’re screening existed unscreened facilities.”
Calling planner Suder to testify, Borrow challenged the description of the area as a mix of “residential, commercial, and institutional,” noting that the nearest school is Alki Elementary, more than half a mile away, and the nearest commercial business is Cactus Restaurant at 63rd/Alki.
Later, the city and Verizon insisted their characterization of the area was appropriate, pointing to the Metro stormwater plant, Bar-S Playfield, and Coast Guard lighthouse nearby.
Borrow’s first introduction of a dictionary definition came when he noted that the official city decision on the antenna application said “the visual impact is minimal”; he asked Watanabe to accept into the record the Merriam-Webster online-dictionary definition of “minimal.” (Later, a similar action was taken with regards to the word “minor.”)
Other points of contention included whether the city had at any point considered screening each antenna individually (answer: no) and whether the city and Verizon had accurately represented the directions in which nearby homes had views, as well as the question of how the decision could suggest it was imperative for Verizon to site these antennas in that spot, when no specific coverage study had been done for the area. Borrow also raised the question of why such studies had been required from other applicants with communications utilities on the same roof, but not in this case.
By late morning, other neighbors had started to take their turns providing testimony. Joel Donnelly said he had bought a house next to the apartment building about a year ago. “You guys are crazy to think a 12-foot structure is not going to impact the value of my building or the views; this thing [the penthouse] is HUGE.”
As a veteran builder, Donnelly also tried to get into the issue of wind dangers on Alki Point and whether the screening “penthouse” could withstand the powerful winds that hit at least once a year, but was told that sort of information belonged in the process that would theoretically follow later, to procure a building permit for the screening structure and the antennas. (That process, by the way, can be followed via the official DPD webpage for the apartment-building site; find that here.)
After Donnelly testified, the city/Verizon team brought out a flyer said to have been from the marketing of his home, showing some of its views; he said he hadn’t previously seen the flyer, and Borrow objected to its introduction, but Watanabe said she’d accept it as part of the record. Donnelly went back to voicing his opposition to the project and its proximity to his living room, saying, “If it wasn’t just directly right there, maybe we wouldn’t see it as much, but it just seems crazy you’re going to put it right next to our living room.”
Maryann Miller Lee, who lives a few doors west from the building, talked about her long family history in the neighborhood, saying her grandfather built the road, “crooked because he was doing it by hand.” According to Lee, her family called the Soundcrest building “the monstrosity,” and she considers its current cell towers to be “blight. … Our hill is very unique and we have wonderful views; I hope you help us keep it that way.”
Following Lee was Steve Neilsen, who lives directly across the street from the Soundcrest building, and said he’s “lived on that street for all (his) 60 years.” As a retired general contractor, one of his primary contentions was that the city might have made a mistake allowing cell towers on that building in the first place – and now is compounding that mistake. He went into some history of how the apartment building was “sneaked by” despite the zoning, involving a “grandfather clause” regarding a “little inn (that used to be) at the end of this bluff.” And he too repeated the point that “most of the neighbors are right on the level with the roof, we’re not, say, down here looking up at it. … I can’t believe the city ever intended us to see a cell phone antenna in that plane of view; it makes no sense. … I know of nowhere in the city where I can walk and see a cell phone antenna eye to eye at that elevation.”
After spending most of the morning at Borrow’s side — Watanabe had said one or the other of them had to take the lead in the case — Karen Clegg testified. She echoed the contention that the city’s description of the area as a neighborhood with a “mix of uses” was erroneous, and cited the fact that the building’s status — in a single-family zone, not on an arterial — gave it the least-desirable type of location for antennas like these.
She also called attention to the topography of the neighborhood: “When most people think about antennas on apartment buildings, they think about looking up at (the antennas). That’s not the case here.”
In addition, Clegg detailed historic opposition to cellular antennas on the apartment building, saying the neighborhood protested them in 1995 and 2000, and now, she believes,”DPD is misusing this nonconforming grandfathered building.” She also said she was “very nervous” about radiation from the antennas “beamed right at my house.”
She was the last witness for the appeal. Picking up the city’s case in support of letting the decision stand, planner Suder explained that city rules about siting antennas in single-family zones toughened a few years back, and now have “three levels of scenarios for approval,” but ultimately made the point that in the city’s view, this installation would meet one of those scenarios: “When we look at conditional-use criteria, there’s one that’s pretty key to allowing this in single-family zones – that the proposal shall not be detrimental, that it should be i the least-intrusive location.”
He zeroed on what “intrusion” meant in this context, contending that this would actually be less intrusive because “the screening is intended to look like it relates to the building’s form that is already there, a mechanical-type penthouse. I’ve seen a lot of things that look like this, a box on the roof” — sometimes for elevators or other equipment. The existing antennas as they are now, unscreened, are an intrusion, he contended (here’s a recent photo we took, looking at the northeast corner of the building’s roof):
He continued, “It’s typical for residential apartment buildings to have a box on the roof – this is a sixteen-foot-long penthouse on a building more than 180 feet long.” As for the screening, it’s now mandatory, he explained: “There’s acceptance that there is some visual impact because of the screening, maybe more than the antenna alone, but at least it won’t look like an antenna … The proposal will retroactively screen that in a way that has more of a character with residential design. This building will look more like a residential building when it’s done than it does now. … (The screening) is going to make an existing problem partly go away.”
And in a cut to a key point of the appeal, Suder added, “In the city of Seattle, views are not protected in most cases, for the most part. People are allowed to build per code; there is no provision to prevent them from doing so if it’s going to block somebody’s view.”
To the complaint that studies hadn’t been done to find out whether the extra antennas could have been placed somewhere else in the area, Suder said, “There aren’t a lot of spots real close to this where these are permitted; that doesn’t mean this couldn’t go in some other location, but that’s not the test that’s needed here (to overturn the approval).” In fact, he said, this might have been considered preferable to other sites, because the “penthouse” would “remove some of the intrusive nonresidential aspects (of the existing unscreened antennas) in the residential zone.”
Next up, lawyer Maruell on behalf of Verizon, with two expert witnesses. One was an engineer who gave some basic facts about the nature of what they’d be looking for the new antennas to do — “expand capacity” as well as improve coverage for areas including ferry runs from Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth to Bremerton to Bainbridge.
The other was Tiffany McClurg, an “independent contractor” whose name is often seen on applications for these types of permits, because she is hired to make them happen. She said she has handled permits for “dozens and dozens” of antenna sites and is rated by the city as a “CPA” — consistently prepared applicant. “If you have a higher CPA rating, you are able to go to the front of the line, so to speak,” she said.
She explained the process of searching for sites for new antennas — receiving the map for a “search ring” drawn up by engineers for areas that either have a lack of service or have been hit by a lot of customer complaints. She drives the search ring, looking for potential locations, finds some, researches zoning, contacts owners, and shepherds everybody through the process.
Answering the concerns about the appearance of the “penthouse,” she noted its “footprint” wouldn’t be much different than the 15 feet taken up by the unscreened antennas there now, and also noted that its color was simply matched to the nondescript scheme of the Soundcrest building, but, “we can paint it any color you want.”
She was challenged on the angle of some of the photos she took; Borrow asked her what kind of camera she used, and she said it was a point-and-shoot with which she was not particularly expert: “My requirement for my camera was that it be pink,” she laughed.
Did she get pictures from the perspective of neighbors’ views? she was asked. No, she said, saying it’s “not a generally accepted practice for us to knock on people’s doors and ask if we can take a picture from their living room.”
About seven hours after the hearing began, it arrived at the closing-statement stage. Borrow said, “What it still boils down to is, the DPD decision was issued without the technical data to support it. … As for intrusiveness, we are a single-family neighborhood, and to make this nonconforming building even more nonconforming seems to me to be compounding the error (of it having been built in the first place) — where will this end?”
Suder’s summary: “The important thing is whether this was the right decision or not … I’ve seen new things today but I haven’t seen anything that conflicts with or makes me second-guess the decision already made. Siting (of antennas) in single-family neighborhoods does happen – you’ve heard why it happened in this case.”
For Verizon, lawyer Maduell: “We agree with the city that screening the antennas is the least intrusive facility at the least intrusive location. The fact is, there’s an existing facility, and this is a good location for the expansion, and penthouses are very common features on apartment buildings. The only impact I’ve heard any testimony about today is visual — but we’re going to be screening and unscreened facility that some have described as an eyesore. We all love views, we all would like 360-degree views, but that’s just not the way it is. If the existing antennas were screened, it wouldn’t be much different than (what the penthouse will look like). Verizon Wireless did everything required by the city to comply; Verizon will paint the facility any color the neighborhood feels appropriate. We don’t think the appellants met the burden of proving that the nonsignificance determination (in environmental review) was erroneous … It’s difficult to site communications facilities here, but it’s line-of-sight technology and we think this is the least intrusive way.”
NEXT STEPS: Deputy Hearing Examiner Watanabe plans to visit the site, as the appellants had urged her to do, for some in-person fact-finding; she said her written decision will be issued within 15 days.