Cell-Bell Tower Approved at Local Church

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

May 8, 2023

Cell service should get a lot better in Morro Bay after the City Planning Commission approved a request by T-Mobile to build a new, upgraded cell “tower,” to replace an existing cell tower at the same church property.

T-Mobile sought a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) to replace a so-called “stealth tower” facility, located inside a large Christian cross sitting atop a steeple at St. Peter’s by the Sea Episcopal Church, 545 Shasta Ave., with a cellular facility located inside a bell tower to be built at the church. 

The old steeple was part of the church building, rising above the roofline and the cell equipment was installed inside a large cross. 

The new bell tower will be erected in the church’s parking lot near the Parish Hall and an existing small building that holds the cellular phone equipment.

The cross/steeple will remain as part of the church’s architecture.

The bell tower won’t actually have bells, but just house the cell site, according to Community Development Director, Scot Graham. Its dimensions are 7-feet by 7-feet at the base and 25-feet tall.

“The project,” reads a City report, “also proposes an upgrade of associated equipment in the existing equipment fenced storage area located on the west side of the church parking lot.”

The church property covers some 0.72-acres and is surrounded by residential properties, with a few other neighborhood churches also located in the vicinity in Morro Heights. Under the City’s muni codes, such telecommunications facilities are allowed anywhere in town.

The City said, “Stealth facilities such as this project in which the antenna and the support equipment are hidden from view in a structure or concealed as an architectural feature are permitted in all districts subject to Conditional Use Permit approval. Therefore, the applicant is requesting Conditional Use Permit and Coastal Development Permit approvals to allow for the modification of the existing telecommunication site.”

Also, “The bell tower has been designed to blend in with the church use and resemble a church bell tower with a short mansard style roof, curved windows with louvers on all sides, and stucco exterior finish to match church building. The tower is also proposed at 25-feet in height consistent with the standard building height maximum in the R-2 zone district.”

R-2 is a zoning designation that is mostly for residential — single family homes as well as apartments and condos — and also some other uses like churches.

The City code also says that no new freestanding cell sites can be located “within 1,000 feet of another freestanding facility unless appropriate camouflage techniques have been used to minimize the visual impact of the facility to the extent feasible and mounting on a building or co-location on an existing pole or tower is not feasible.”

So a 25-foot tall bell tower located where there was none before, is camouflage enough, sort of like hiding in plain sight, though most of the surrounding homes appear to be single story, as is the church.

“In this case,” the report said, “the project is a replacement of an existing on-site facility and not a new facility. The existing facility at this site has been concealed within the cross and steeple feature of the church.”

T-Mobile has said the new equipment it wants to install won’t fit inside the cross, so a new tower is needed.

“Construction of the faux bell tower,” the City report said, “provides an opportunity to meet the project’s desired coverage objectives of meeting current telecommunication needs while also concealing the site with appropriate camouflage techniques as described in the zoning code standards.”

The cell tower inside the cross goes back to 2007, when Sprint/Nextel got a permit and built the 26-foot tall cell site hidden inside the cross. That original permit had language that allowed for a future upgrade that would allow a 30-foot tall cross, plus the 20’ by 10’ building in the parking lot. That small building would have electronic equipment and batteries to power the equipment in case of outages.

Since then, Sprint/Nextel merged with T-Mobile, which has two other cell sites within the city — inside a small lattice enclosure underneath a high voltage power tower on the hilltop at the end of Radcliff Street; and a cell site on top of Rock Harbor Church, near the intersection of South Bay Boulevard and Quintana Road.

Cell towers, especially as they’ve grown more powerful with technological advances have raised some concerns about radio frequency electromagnetic exposure or RF-EME, which some contend can be harmful. The same claims have long been made about the high voltage electrical transmission wires that cross Main Street and Hwy 1 at the rear of the power plant. 

Global Technology Associates did a technical report for this project back in August 2021. 

“The report,” the City said, “was determined to be within Federal Communications Commission maximum exposure limits and in compliance with FCC rules and regulations.”

And under Federal Regulations, concerns about RF-EME cannot be used to block telecommunications projects if testing has shown it to be within safety limits.

The report concluded that there would be no harmful levels of exposure from the new cell site.

“At roof-level the anticipated maximum predictive RF-EME will be 18.8% of FCC’s occupational limit. At ground level, the maximum power density generated by the antennas is approximately 94% of FCC’s general public limit or 18.8% of occupational limit. 

“Lastly, it should be noted that these results include worst-case scenario assumptions and therefore are expected to overstate actual power density levels.”

Graham said the Planning Commission’s approval of the project came with some added conditions.

“The Planning Commission,” Graham told Estero Bay News, “added conditions requiring a nearby tree be kept; that the bell tower be maintained similar to other buildings on the property; that more articulation be added to the bell tower; requirement that the RF signage include the name of the engineer or record; and a requirement for a post construction RF-EME report be prepared showing the facility operating in compliance with FCC emission requirements.”

You May Also Like…