Documented by Kristina Mansfield
Here’s what you need to know
- The Fresno County Planning Commission approved conditional use permits (CUP) allowing for the installation of two unmanned wireless telecommunications towers; denied the CUP for one and continued the application for another until the Nov. 16 meeting to allow further feedback from the community.
- The commission approved a tract map application at 13530 E. Ashlan Ave. that allows the subdivision of a 12.20-acre parcel into five parcels.
- The Planning Commission voted against staff recommendations to deny a variance application that would allow the creation of two substandard-sized legal parcels from an existing 9.67-acre parcel on the northwest corner of the intersection of Jensen and Blythe avenues, citing exceptional circumstances.
- Another scene was caused at a local government meeting because it failed to notify residents in a language they understand. In Fresno City, the municipal code states they must send notices in English and Spanish. Is there a similar law for Fresno County proceedings and what can residents do when this protocol is repeatedly ignored to their detriment?
- Is Verizon planning to appeal the commission’s denial of its cell tower?
- How do you make a resource-deprived community resource-rich when they won’t accept the risks – and change – that come with technological advances?
- Why does the county continue to use “Squaw Valley” verbiage in its presentation when the state already voted to change its name due to its derogatory meaning?
The regular meeting of the Fresno County Planning Commission took place Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, at 8:45 a.m. in the Board of Supervisors Chambers at the Hall of Records (Room 301, 2281 Tulare St.). Eighteen members of the public were in attendance.
According to its website, the Planning Commission has jurisdiction, powers and duties to do all things related to local and area planning as may be conferred to it by the government code, or which has been delegated to it by the Board of Supervisors. The commission’s duties include considering and approving applications for land subdivisions, variances and conditional use permits, as well as making recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on issues concerning zoning and the county’s general plan.
Those wishing to participate in the Fresno County Planning Commission meetings must attend in person.
CALL TO ORDER: Introduction, Pledge of Allegiance and Roll Call
Chair Ken Abrahamian called the meeting to order at 8:47 a.m. Next, Abrahamian went over the meeting rules and mandatory legal procedural requirements. Copies of all of the materials to be discussed during the meeting, including staff reports and presentations, were made available both in print and online.
Planning commissioners in attendance:
Abrahamian, District 1
Vice Chair Glenda Hill, at large
John Arabian, District 5
Esther Carver, District 3
Kuldip Chatha, District 4
James Quist, at large
Lisa Woolf, at large
Blake Zante, at large
Commissioner Austin Ewell, District 2, was absent.
Deputy County Counsel Alison Samarin was also in attendance.
Consent Agenda Item No: 1: UNCLASSIFIED CONDITIONAL USE PERMIT NO. 3693 – FIRST ONE YEAR TIME EXTENSION filed by JEFFREY T. ROBERTS.
- Consent agenda approved with no edits. Motion by Chata; motion passed 8-0.
Agenda Item No. 1: PUBLIC PRESENTATIONS
- There was no public comment.
Agenda Item No. 2: TENTATIVE TRACT MAP APPLICATION NO. 6323 AND INITIAL STUDY NO. 7847
- Jeremy Shaw, with Fresno County Department of Public Works and Planning, presented the tract map application that would allow the subdivision of a 12.20-acre parcel into five parcels, each containing a minimum of 2 acres in the R-R (Rural Residential, 2-acre minimum parcel size) Zone District. The parcel (APN: 308-390-75) is located at 13530 E. Ashlan Ave. on the northeast corner and is about 3.6 miles east of the Clovis city limits. Applicant Rod Strahm appeared at the meeting to represent the Strahm family.
- Motion by Chata to approve; motion passed 8-0.
Agenda Item No. 3: VARIANCE 4148
- Shaw again presented, this time for a variance application filed by Audrey Oliver proposing to allow the creation of two substandard-sized legal parcels, a 5.18-acre parcel and a 4.49-acre parcel, from an existing 9.67-acre parcel in the AE-20 (Exclusive Agricultural, 20-acre minimum parcel size) Zone District. The project (APN: 327-110-62, 61) is located at 1723 and 1769 S. Blythe Ave., on the northwest corner of the intersection of Jensen and Blythe avenues, and is about 1.5 miles west-southwest of the nearest Fresno city limits.
- The staff recommended that Variance Application No. 4148 be denied. Shaw read from its Summary Conclusion, “Based on the factors cited in the analysis, findings 1, 2 and 4 for granting the variance application cannot be made. The situation is not based on a unique physical circumstance of the property that constrains the use of the property any more than other parcels in the area with the same zoning. The applicants’ personal desires and support from some property owners does not entitle them to a special privilege not enjoyed by other properties in the area with the same zoning.”
- Applicant Mike Hamzy of Hamzy & Associates appeared on behalf of Oliver. “Mr. Oliver is getting old and he was planning to give the second house to his daughter, who is a nurse, so she can remodel it and move in, and continue farming the property,” he said. “The only reason we’re asking for the allotment adjustment is (so) we are able to get a financial loan on the existing house so she can refinance it,” he explained. “We met with the planning (department) … and they requested a parcel map and to ask for the variance.”
- Hamzy explained that while the project doesn’t meet the requirements of the most recent general plan, there are 20 parcels in the areas that are less than 5 acres and requested that the commission give special consideration to Oliver.
- Woolf questioned the five letters of support submitted to the commission for consideration and said she wanted to know the addresses of all of the residents who wrote them. Hamzy confirmed they were all from neighbors.
- The next speaker in support of the variance was Keith Koligian, a personal friend of Oliver. “I’m here to help Mr. Oliver get some health care help from his family members and it’s a blessing when you can get it. As I get close to 70 I see how important that is,” he said. “I went by this property every day going to grammar school. Each house has its own separate well, its two separate units for all … it’s one block right now where each unit has its own water source, septic source so it’s so easy to split it down the middle. He’s a man of his word and he’s a man of his honor and I hope you guys can give him consideration.” Woolf asked Koligian to point to his home on the map as she wanted to see any letters in support specifically from the adjoining properties.
- Juan Navarro, who lives across the street from Oliver at 1730 S. Blythe Ave., spoke in support of the variance. “His family wants to help him out. He’s been a very good neighbor … he just does the neighborly thing.”
- Alan Vierra gave comments on behalf of his mother, Carolyn Vierra, who lives directly across the street from Oliver. “She fully supports his request. It will have no bearing on the neighborhood as far as anything negative. They have been great neighbors for well over 30 years.”
- There were no speakers in opposition of the application.
- Abrahamian said after hearing testimony that he can make findings to support the application. Arabian agreed, and said “It’s really just a lot line adjustment and with the health of the caregiver, to me that is some exceptional circumstances right there.”
- Abrahamian moved to approve with the recommended edits. Quist recused himself; motion passed 7-0 and is final unless appealed by the Board of Supervisors.
Agenda Item 4: UNCLASSIFIED CONDITIONAL USE PERMIT NO. 3765 and INITIAL STUDY NO. 8404
- Raymundo Peraza, with the Fresno County Public Works and Planning Department, presented on behalf of Elliot Racusin. Frank and Pasqua Chimienti are the listed owners and Leesa Gendel, SAC Wireless, is the applicant.
- The CUP will allow for the installation of an unmanned freestanding 100-foot-tall monopine style co-locatable wireless telecommunications facility on a 76.68-acre parcel within the RR (Rural Residential, 2-acre minimum parcel size) Zone District. The parcel (APN: 512-031-01S) is located on the southeast corner of W. Shaw and Grantland avenues, and is adjacent to the city of Fresno to the north, south and east. It is in Supervisorial District 1.
- As Peraza noted from the staff report, the proposal includes the establishment of a new wireless communications facility consisting of a 100-foot-tall wireless communication tower (monopine design), and an equipment cabinet within a 2,500-square-foot lease area to be enclosed by a 6-foot-tall chain-link fence. The project does not include an on-site emergency back-up generator and will utilize battery backup power in case of emergencies. The only lighting at the site will be a shielded down-tilt light with motion sensor and auto shut-off timer installed at the door. The proposed tower will allow for co-location options for future tenants. As such, the lease area reserves a 200-square-foot and 150-foot space for an equipment shelter for future wireless carriers who may co-locate on the tower.
- Abrahamian requested a map showing the city of Fresno and additional information about what recreational buildings existed to the north and south of the parcel as listed in the report. He then asked if there will be a beacon on the tower, questioning the FAA and FCC specifications and what that elevation requirements are. County counsel confirmed “these are regulatory issues that we don’t address. It doesn’t go through us.”
- Carver pointed out that the commission is usually provided with an area map that includes all of the cellphone towers within a five-mile radius and requested additional information. Woolf agreed with Carver and mentioned some of the cellphone towers are private and have gone up with their approval and they need to keep track. Quist then confirmed the flashing light on the top of the tower would in fact go through a regulatory agency.
- Leesa Gendel with SAC Wireless – the vendors that represent Verizon Wireless and are tasked with going out and researching new markets where the company needs more coverage – and Walter Kohls, RF Engineer Central Valley Expert with Verizon Wireless, were available to answer questions about the proposed project.
- Kohls, who helped design the project site, said all tower lighting is regulated by the FAA and to light a tower below 200 feet is in violation of its rules. He also said Verizon is looking to co-locate with other partners. “We’re not in the business of putting up more towers than we need. The last thing we want to do is pollute the skyline.”
- Woolf was concerned with the lifetime of the towers. “You’re almost like a landlord,” she said. “What happens if it gets bought and bought and bought and we get left with an old metal tower.” Kohls said there are regulatory bodies that deal with this, following with “there are also local requirements that ensure tower companies are on the hook for that.”
- Zanta moved to approve; motion passed 7-0 (Carter had stepped away).
- The commission unanimously approved (7-0) Conditional Use Permit 3765 and Initial Study No. 8404 allowing for the installation of an unmanned freestanding 100-foot-tall monopine-style co-locatable wireless telecommunications facility on a 76.68-acre parcel within the RR (Rural Residential, 2-acre minimum parcel size) Zone District.
Agenda Item 5 – UNCLASSIFIED CONDITIONAL USE PERMIT NO. 3766 and INITIAL STUDY NO. 8405
- Raymundo Peraza, with the Fresno County Public Works and Planning Department, presented on behalf of Elliot Racusin. Edward Morishima is the listed owner and Leesa Gendel, SAC Wireless, is the applicant. Walter Kohls, RF Engineer Central Valley Expert with Verizon Wireless, also answered questions about the project.
- The conditional use permit will allow for the installation of an unmanned freestanding 80-foot-tall monopine style co-locatable wireless telecommunications facility on a 10.28-acre parcel within the AE-20 (Exclusive Agricultural, 20-acre minimum parcel size) Zone District. The parcel (APN: 326-110-09) is located at 4141 W. Belmont Ave. on the southwest corner of Belmont and Brawley avenues,and is about 0.52-miles east from the city of Fresno. It is in Supervisorial District 1.
- After Peraza’s presentation, Hill asked about the lease term; Gendel confirmed it was 25 years. Abrahamian asked if there was any feedback from the county Fire Department. There was not. Carver pointed out that the wrong map was included in the application.
- Juan Martinez, a resident of Yokuts Valley, asked about the dead space referenced on the map during the presentation. “So you’re saying you can’t make a phone call?” Kohls then explained the difference between coverage and capacity and said the goal of the new towers is to increase capacity.
- The commission unanimously approved (8-0 read into the record but Carver wasn’t in the room) unclassified Conditional Use Permit No. 3766 and Initial Study No. 8405 allowing for the installation of the wireless telecommunications facility on a 10.28-acre parcel within the AE-20 (Exclusive Agricultural, 20-acre minimum parcel size) Zone District.
Agenda Item 6: UNCLASSIFIED CONDITIONAL USE PERMIT NO. 3769 and INITIAL STUDY NO. 8429.
- Raymundo Peraza, Fresno County Public Works and Planning Department, presented on behalf of Elliot Racusin. The Laton Lions Club is the owner and Leesa Gendel is the applicant.
- The conditional use permit will allow for the installation of an unmanned freestanding 80-foot-tall monopine-style co-locatable wireless telecommunications facility on an 8.58-acre parcel within the R-E (Recreational) Zone District. The parcel (APN: 057-090-34) is located at 6345 Nares Ave. on the southwest corner of Nares and Pico avenues within the Unincorporated Community of Laton. It is in Supervisorial District 4.
- Staff found the applicant met all five conditions of approval as outlined in its report.
- Woolf said the Laton Unified School District is less than a quarter of a mile away and questioned why there was no feedback from them. “I get nervous sometimes that they’re not responding and they should be. Sometimes people are so alarmed about the effects of a cellphone tower. This is within a quarter of a mile. It seems like a red flag to this commission. I for one would feel comfortable if we had something from the school district saying that they’ve reached out to the parents, notified the families. We’ve just seen it too many times now, that small communities do have problems with this.”
- Kohls responded to Woolf’s concerns. “I understand first-hand what that uneasiness is. The school district was in support of this because they wanted to have broadband access into the school. The FCC regulates everything that the carriers do,” he said. “I want to be clear that the public can have a misconception regarding ionizing and nonionizing radiation that comes from these types of things. You would have to climb the tower and be very close to that tower to be harmed. You get more damage from being in the sunlight. I want to assure you this is an incredibly regulated area by the FCC. That has all been done, on anything we do, and that goes for all of our competitors as well.” Woolf responded that she wished there was a letter of support from the Laton Unified School District. Kohls said he was surprised to not see support “here in chambers.”
- Quist asked if tower age had any impact on radiation. “No,” said Kohls. “You can actually go to the FCC website and break it down by model number. It’s all there for the public to see.”
- “I see that the owner of the property is the Laton Lions Club,” said Abrahamian. Hill said Laton is a really underprivileged community. “This is a blessing. I understand that this would benefit Laton, and the Lions Club said that.
- Rosemary Chan, 20921 Kastner St. in Laton, spoke out in opposition and said she and her neighbors didn’t receive adequate time to respond to the public notices they received and that some had not received them at all. Chan said she received her meeting notice on Tuesday and saw something about it on her neighborhood Facebook page Saturday. “I went to pay my water bill and I asked the lady at the water department; she hasn’t seen it. And she knows everything that is going on in town. I asked my neighbors; they hadn’t seen it.” said Chan. She also said that the neighborhood is mostly Spanish-speaking and they were sent notices in English. “It takes 30 minutes to get to the meeting in person, community members would have to miss work, and with the high price of gas it’s not feasible for them to get there.”
- Juan Martinez, Yokuts Valley, also spoke in opposition. “Everyone is talking about how safe this is, but this is new technology. You can’t say there’s no effect, there’s been no long-term studies. It affects the weakest of us.”
- Kohls countered and said one of the reasons this area was targeted is because this is a very low-income area. “The purpose of the site was to create a digital equity gap to be brought in.”
- Woolf then said she wants to hear from the school district and the Lions Club, specifically. “They are going to be paid a certain amount – rent – to have this pole on their property. I know this is about money. The whole thing about putting up a cell tower that might be sold one day to the next group of cellphone companies — I really need to see those support letters from the community. They might all really need this service. I would just like to see that.” She went on to say “I do agree the community should have all of the information in front of them so they can make an informed decision. There just hasn’t been an informed dialogue.”
- After more back-and-forth, Abrahamian suggested scheduling the item to come back to the Nov. 16 meeting to allow Verizon more time to gather feedback from the community.
- Steve Christiansen, Verizon real estate manager, encouraged county staff to re-notice. “I want the community to be told about it. It’s very clear that there are concerns.” County counsel said they can only re-notice exactly as they had already done to be consistent with policy and that it can’t be changed based on topic. If the applicant wants to increase the distribution area of the notice list they are able to do so and are encouraged to work with the county as needed.
- Carver challenged Christiansen: “Show us how you noticed and who you noticed: think through the school, the Lions Club and the lady that takes the water bills. You’ve also heard today that there’s a Facebook page. There’s lots of ways to get the word out about a neighborhood meeting using neighborhood channels. The county list has only 39 property owners.”
- The commission unanimously agreed to continue the item to the Nov. 16 meeting and is looking to Verizon to have a community informational meeting and get letters in support from the Lions Club and Laton Unified School District.
- Motion passed 7-0. Chata was not present.
Agenda Item Number 7: UNCLASSIFIED CONDITIONAL USE PERMIT NO. 3770 and INITIAL STUDY NO. 8431
- Raymundo Peraza, with the Fresno County Public Works and Planning Department, presented on behalf of Elliot Racusin. James and Kathleen Ramirez are the owners and Leesa Gendel is the applicant. Kohls also answered questions about the project.
- The conditional use permit would allow the installation of an unmanned freestanding 100-foot-tall monopine-style co-locatable wireless telecommunications facility on a 3.8-acre parcel within the AE-5 (Exclusive Agricultural, 5-acre minimum parcel size) Zone District. The parcel (APN: 160-420-08) is located at 1830 Elwood Road on the northwest corner of Boren Lane. It is about 9.5 miles northeast of the incorporated community of Orange Cove. It is in Supervisor District 5.
- Kohls said this particular area of concern is trying to reach all of the residents along Elwood Road and provide broadband services to the community, including additional coverage to the fire station.
- Rachel Delacruz, a resident that lives on the road where the tower is going to be located, spoke in support of the project. “As a resident on the property, I work in health care and I’ve talked to plenty of doctors that have said the radiation is not a cancer risk. Our neighbor right across the road is also in support of it.”
- Maria Martinez, a resident that lives across the street from the proposed tower at 1747 Elwood Road, spoke in opposition. “We already have a tower at Bear Mountain. We have coverage and we don’t have any problems. Not all the residents from Squaw Valley received the notices. Not even the neighbor across from us knew about this.”
- Juan Martinez, who also lives at 1747 Elwood Road, spoke in opposition. “The only problem I have with this is you’re putting it too low … you put them at the top of the mountain and let them radiate down. Maybe they didn’t look at the topography.”
Asked if he was close to the high power lines. Martinez confirmed that he was. He also said that when he goes into Dollar General down the 180 by the gas station, they are unable to make phone calls or send text messages.
- Another resident, who lives at 1801 Elwood Road, spoke in opposition and said he felt Verizon was being misleading in its presentations. “Overall, I feel that the project is misleading. You can go to the elevation charts and they’re not showing that there is a very steep hill, about 40 feet tall, where the tower will be placed. The things that they’re showing in green [on the coverage maps] there’s nothing there but coyotes. In the very short time we’ve had to talk to people there’s been almost all opposition.” He mentioned he received the notice 10 days ago.
- Kohls also answered questions about the project. “The reason we’re not going on the mountains is because it’s impossible. It would run in excess of $2 million just to get power up on those ridges. I agree that if there was power up there, on either side, that would be a good option. But there isn’t.” He also said in regards to Dollar General that Verizon has reported them to the FCC for using cell blocking equipment within their stores. “This is designed to keep the employees from communicating at work. That’s probably more Dollar General than coverage, and it affects all of the carriers,” he said.
- Abrahamian noted that of the available potential sites for the tower listed in the staff report, eight of them didn’t respond. “Would there have been a better site than this one and they just didn’t respond?” he asked.
- Woolf questioned the overall need for the services that installing the tower would provide. “A number of the opposition said this doesn’t seem like a very effective place to put the tower. According to a map we’ve got, it just doesn’t look like there’s that many homes. Why is it so important to [Verizon] to be in this valley, especially when there’s so many resources available already to get service?” she said.
- Kohls countered that residents aren’t actually getting data services presently. “There is no rural broadband availability in this area. It won’t work. They’re too far from the Bear Mountain station,” he said. “So the idea is to give them high-speed internet access at a potentially much lower cost.”
- Woolf provided her final comments on the matter. “I know I don’t feel good about this one,” she said. “We have the opposition here in the room and the people who can benefit the most from it don’t want it. The fact that no one responded doesn’t mean a single thing and I think it’s an exaggeration of how hard they [Verizon] looked and how hard they tried.”
- Zante motioned to approve; seconded by Hill. No votes: Abrahamian, Carver, Quist, Woolf. Chata had left. Motion denied 4-3. The decision may be appealed to the Board of Supervisors; otherwise it is final.
Agenda Item No. 8: CONSIDER AND ADOPT THE 2024 PLANNING COMMISSIONER MEETING CALENDAR
- According to the staff report, there are 19 upcoming hearings; some months have two hearings.
- Zante moved to approve and the motion passed unanimously.
Agenda Item No. 9: INFORMATION/DISCUSSION ITEM
- Nothing to report.
The meeting adjourned at 12:14 p.m. The Fresno County Planning Commission is scheduled to meet again on Oct. 26 and Nov. 1.
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