Parents protest cell tower at Burbank church

Officials were directed to draft a resolution for June 5 so the City Council can formally approve appeals filed against the T-Mobile facility slated for atop the Little White Chapel at 1711 N. Avon St. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / May 17, 2012)

Residents were successful Tuesday in keeping a wireless telecommunications facility out of their neighborhood after Burbank City Council members pledged to block the project.

Amid an overflow crowd at the council’s chambers, officials were directed to draft a resolution for June 5 so the City Council can formally approve appeals filed against the T-Mobile facility slated for atop the Little White Chapel at 1711 N. Avon St.

In their appeals, residents argued the project would negatively impact property values and was incompatible with a single-family residential area.

At public rallies, they also argued the facility, which would have included 12 antennas housed in a steeple-like structure atop the church, posed potential health hazards to residents and a nearby school.

It was the first such project to come back on appeal after the City Council voted 3 to 2 in September to approve an ordinance permitting wireless telecommunications facilities in single-family neighborhoods.

After the Planning Board approved the project earlier this year, three appeals were filed in an effort to overturn the decision.

Councilman David Gordon blamed three of his colleagues for the volatile situation, which has galvanized neighbors living near the church into waging a public relations campaign against the proposed facility.

“The reason we are here this evening is because of three elected officials sitting at this dais,” Gordon said, referring to Mayor Dave Golonski and Councilmen Jess Talamantes and Gary Bric, who voted for the ordinance.

Gordon and Councilwoman Emily Gabel-Luddy voted against it.

“I based my vote on things that possibly I wasn’t aware of,” Bric said. “I could have made a mistake, Dr. Gordon.”

The ordinance requires a conditional zoning permit for each proposed project, so decisions can be made on a case-by-case basis.

In making their decision, City Council members cited several reasons, including the fact that the new steeple-like structure would make the church too tall to be compatible with the neighborhood.

Council members also expressed concerns that the facility would have been in the heart of the neighborhood and the steeple-like structure didn’t fit aesthetically with the 70-year-old church.

Federal law prohibits state or local governments from regulating the placement, construction or modification of wireless facilities on the basis of environmental health concerns, such as the effects of radio frequency emissions.

After the council pledged to block the T-Mobile project, Gordon requested the ordinance permitting cell sites in residential areas be reviewed.

“We gotta kill that ordinance and I hope it comes back as soon as possible,” he said.

After the meeting, Roy Wiegand, one of the opponents of the wireless facility who lives across the street from the church, said neighbors plan to reach out to the Little White Chapel and its pastor.

“We don’t want to dance, or gloat in their face,” he said.

T-Mobile, however, issued a statement pointing out that increased demand by customers is forcing the company to install more wireless facilities.

The company also stressed that it works within all local, state and federal guidelines.

“T-Mobile’s application for the proposed facility met the city’s revised guidelines, which was confirmed by the Planning [Board’s] approval,” the company said, adding that it “still needs to provide coverage in the area and is currently assessing its options regarding next steps.”

Blocking the cell tower means that the Little White Chapel will miss out on the promised lease payments from T-Mobile, but Wiegand said some neighbors may be willing to help the church financially through fundraisers or improvement projects.

Rev. Bill Thomas Jr., the church’s pastor, said the church is doing “fine” financially and church members, who number between 50 and 100, have been supportive.

“We are good stewards of what God has given us,” he said.

Thomas said he’s talked to some of his neighbors on the street following the council meeting.

“We’ve had very conciliatory and calm conversations,” Thomas said. “I think we might end up even closer neighbors.”