Judge Forces Verizon To Do Full EIR On Mount Baldy Cell Towers

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Gilbert Ochoa has entered a ruling that Verizon Wireless must complete an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act before it can proceed with its planned installation of a cell phone tower in the community of Mt. Baldy.
Since the early 2000s, the fire department in Mt. Baldy has been pressing for the establishment of cell phone service in Mt. Baldy Village and its rugged environs, which straddles the county line between Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County in the Angeles National Forest.
After Supervisor Janice Rutherford was elected in 2010, the fire department again approached Town Hall requesting cell phone service in Mt Baldy. With Rutherford’s help, elements of the community and fire personnel successfully persuaded Verizon to accelerate the priority of an already-planned Mt. Baldy cell tower site, according to hearing testimony by Verizon lobbyist Douglas McAllister. Although the fire department, Town Hall, and Rutherford played an integral role in creating a sense of urgency and importance, the project to bring cell phone service to Mt Baldy was spearheaded by Verizon itself.
The first Mt. Baldy cell phone tower was proposed to be sited at the fire station, which is on property owned not by the county but rather the Baldy Homeowners’ Association, which had to approve the use. The matter was put to a vote before homeowners association households, resulting in denial by a margin of 57 percent (28 votes) to 43 percent (21 votes).
Verizon eventually changed the proposed location of the first Mt. Baldy cell phone tower to a location near the trout pool property near the heart of the village.
Over the course of several Town Hall and homeowners association meetings, numerous residents expressed concern about the proposed location of the first Mt. Baldy cell phone tower, mostly regarding proximity to homes and the school. A group of concerned residents intensified discussions on the matter and eventually evolved into the Keep Baldy Wild Coalition. The coalition gathered signatures of an appreciable number of the town’s residents on a petition that called for “prudent avoidance” of the “potential harmful biological effects of radio frequency radiation exposure from cell phone towers and antennae” while advocating “a tower placement that serves the needs of Search and Rescue/Fire Department and is at least 3,000 feet from human habitation, schools and sensitive species habitat.”
Initially, Verizon represented that its application was for a single cell phone tower – a “standalone site” – which was to be located near the trout pools. In June 2015, Verizon lobbyist Douglas McAllister conceded that one tower would not provide coverage for adequate emergency services and that a network of two or three towers was planned, contradicting the wording in Verizon’s original application. Randi Newton, a Verizon subcontractor who had previously testified that only a single tower was planned for Mt Baldy, subsequently admitted that two additional towers were planned, one at Sunset Ridge and the other near the ski lifts. While the clear discrepancy between what Verizon applied for and what it intended to do seemed to disturb the planning commission, ultimately it made a mitigated negative declaration with regard to the project.
A mitigated negative declaration is a statement that a full blown environmental impact report with regard to a project in question need not be completed because the project itself incorporates revisions and/or mitigation measures that will avoid or mitigate impacts to a point where no significant impacts on the environment will occur and that there is no substantial evidence in light of the whole record before the public agency that the project, as revised and/or approved, will have a significant impact on the environment.
A number of Mt. Baldy residents did not concur and had gone on record against the project when it was under consideration by the San Bernardino County Planning Commission, contending the towers represented an unacceptable degradation of the sensitive mountain habitat.
Simultaneously, there are a handful of Mt. Baldy residents who have expressed the view that Keep Baldy Wild is an obstructionist group categorically opposed to cell phone service in Mt. Baldy on the sole basis of a misguided fear of radio frequency radiation.
Under the rubric of Keep Baldy Wild and in conjunction with the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians – Kizh Nation, who were especially concerned about their ancestral spring in the vicinity of the project site, Mt. Baldy residents opposed to Verizon’s intended location for the cell tower appealed the planning commission decision to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. In October 2015, the board of supervisors heard the appeal. In preparation, Keep Baldy Wild hired a wildlife ecologist, a former county planner, and several other experts, who scrutinized Verizon’s application and pressed a case based upon what it contended were a whole host of oversights and inadequacies. The board of supervisors nevertheless upheld the planning commission.
According to the project opponents, the county’s land use services division and other county officials exhibited a bias in favor of Verizon from the outset.
“San Bernardino County officials did everything they could to thwart our group and facilitated Verizon at every step,” said Alison Denning, a spokeswoman for the Coalition to Keep Baldy Wild. “On our second visit to the county offices to review the file on the proposed cell tower for our village, the original file we had seen on our first visit was missing. We had been submitting documents for months and they were not there. We were told that the few pages we were shown were all they had. A year later we were told the ‘lost’ file had been found in the desert office. When we requested a video recording of the first hearing before the planning commission, it arrived missing the section where county counsel misinformed the planning commissioners which led to not allowing their 2 to 2 decision to stand. Fortunately, we had made our own audio recording of that discussion, which is posted on our website.”
The Keep Baldy Wild Coalition took legal action, challenging the approval under the California Environmental Quality Act in San Bernardino Superior Court. On September 26, Judge Gilbert Ochoa found in favor of the plaintiffs.
“Contrary to respondents’ assertion,” Ochoa stated, “there is no basis in the record to find the testimony of the Mt. Baldy residents as insubstantial. Moreover, there is nothing in the record to indicate that the board of supervisors discussed any opposing evidence of significant impacts or made any factual determinations regarding the credibility of any such opposing evidence. Indeed, in the updated staff report for the October 2015 appeal hearing staff merely set forth the opposing argument and the county’s corresponding response but there was no discussion of the opposing evidence provide by the petitioner and others. Instead, the staff simply stated the project will not cause adverse visual impacts due to the 45 foot height of the facility. Similarly, at the October 2015 appeal hearing, the board of supervisors did not make any specific credibility determinations which would require deference based on the evidence in the record. Petitioner has demonstrated there is substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project may have a significant aesthetic impact on the environment. Although there is also evidence supporting the county’s decision to issue a mitigated negative declaration, it cannot be upheld under the fair argument standard. Accordingly, the mitigated negative declaration should be set aside and the county is ordered to prepare an environmental impact report.”
The group’s attorney John McClendon stated, “In 27 years of litigating environmental cases, I have never seen a trial court judge provide such a meticulously detailed ruling. Judge Ochoa’s ruling reads like an appellate court decision and explains why an appeal of it would be futile.”
Dr. Gary Stickel, the tribal archaeologist for the Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians / Kizh Nation said the ruling “acknowledged that Verizon did not conduct a proper environmental impact study in which they were to consider alternate sites to the one favored in Mt. Baldy. I am pleased that the judge mentioned the Kizh Tribe and its full support to keep their sacred mountain of Joat (Mt. Baldy) from being desecrated by an unnecessary facility there.”
Gerald Braden, a wildlife ecologist who reviewed the Verizon biology report completed by FirstCarbon Solutions/Michael Brandman Associates, stated “The court recognized that San Bernardino County Supervisors and Verizon were trying to subvert the environmental process. In essence, the San Bernardino County Supervisors were putting the influence of Verizon ahead of the interests and well-being of the people they are elected to serve.”
While the ruling does not permanently stop the planned development, it orders the county to prepare a thorough study of potential impacts on a wide array of environmental factors, including migrating and seasonal species. Going forward, the coalition is concerned that Verizon might contract with a firm known to have corporate ties with developers and planners in San Bernardino County. Keep Baldy Wild plans to remain vigilant as the environmental impact report is completed. The coalition has collected records documenting corporate-government alliances between known consultants, county land use division employees and supervisors, and Verizon.

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