Where to put the cell tower?

Which is better, putting new cell phone towers on existing light standards at the Hooker Oak ball fields in Bidwell Park, or building a big new tower on the Elks Lodge property nearby?

That wasn’t exactly the issue before the Chico City Council at its Tuesday (Sept. 19) meeting, but it turned out to be the issue council-members really wanted to consider.

At actual issue was a request to hear an appeal of the Bidwell Park and Playgrounds Commission’s approval of two new cellular service towers at the Rex Murphy Field in the Hooker Oak Recreation Area. The towers effectively exist, in the form of ballpark light standards, but two of the eight standards now lighting the field would be heightened by about 25 feet to accommodate the antennas of up to six cellular companies.

The proposal is intrinsically controversial, since it amounts to adding a commercial activity to Bidwell Park, which many Chicoans want to protect from such incursions. But it is complicated in this case by the fact that another tower, this one 125 feet high and capable of holding four companies’ antennas, has been proposed for the Elks Lodge property at East and Manzanita avenues, less than half a mile away. Another complicating factor is that the Chico Area Parks and Recreation District, which manages the ball field, would reap a financial benefit of more than $200,000 from the Hooker Oak towers.

Both projects are intended to provide and improve cell-phone service in northeast Chico, which the wireless companies involved say is underserved. At this point, however, only one of them is needed.

Two councilmembers, Dan Herbert and Larry Wahl, clearly wanted to approve the towers on the spot (Councilman Steve Bertagna recused himself because his business is related to the cellular industry).

Herbert argued that, of the two possible sites, the Hooker Oak one was clearly preferable—"a no-brainer,” he said. Unlike the Elks Lodge site, it’s well away from residences and, because of the tree canopy in the park, would be “probably the least visible cell tower in Chico.”

After numerous hearings, the project has been endorsed by the Park Commission and by city staff, he noted. Approving it would be a “pro-business” move that would be good for the community.

For his part, Wahl noted that the Hooker Oak area is already well developed, with lights, ball fields and restrooms, so the towers and accompanying electronic equipment would be a “minimal intrusion.”

Several speakers representing various wireless companies spoke of the need for enhanced service in northeast Chico and noted that, because of a lack of industrial property in the area, options for siting towers were limited.

Most of the unaffiliated speakers, however, were concerned about the impact on Bidwell Park. They noted that Annie Bidwell had specifically enjoined the city from establishing commercial enterprises in the park and said allowing the towers there would be a slippery slope. “What’s next?” asked Harold Carlson. “Hot dog stands? Food chains?”

This concern and others related to the noise and visibility of the ground-mounted electronic equipment—it will be placed in a cinderblock-walled area behind the scoreboard and right field fence—were enough to convince four of the councilmembers—Andy Holcombe, Maureen Kirk, Ann Schwab and Mayor Scott Gruendl—that a hearing should be held.

Holcombe especially wanted to discuss how the Hooker Oak site compared with the Elks Lodge site. The council can’t effectively decide which is the less-intrusive and safer project without considering them together, he said.

Earlier this summer, the Planning Commission held off its decision on the Elks Lodge proposal pending a third-party report on several factors, including need. City Manager Greg Jones said he expected that review to be completed in time for the council to consider both projects at its Nov. 7 meeting.