Controversy is brewing over a wireless tower site in Sonoma County, Calif., that has operated without a valid zoning permit since 1999.

At issue is whether the existing telecom site skates local zoning laws. The 140-foot Rm65 telecommunications tower is located at 4914 Burnside Road on English Hill in Sebastopol, Calif., on land owned and occupied by amateur-radio enthusiast Bruce Donecker. Donecker is a retired electrical engineer who has lived on the property since 1973. The tower in question is on his land—a tree-laden ridgeline that runs south and north adjacent to Costal Highway 1 in Sonoma County—and was constructed under county building permit 1587 filed on March 22, 1974, for amateur use.

In August 1994, the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) denied a five-year use permit application to convert one of three amateur towers on the site to a major freestanding commercial facility.

In November 1994, after an appeal, Donecker said he received a five-year conditional-use permit to convert the tower from an amateur- to a commercial-operated entity, while still supporting public-safety communications used by the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Transportation and ambulance services for south and northwest Sonoma County. It was subject to restrictions on the number of antennae, panels and microwave dishes that could be placed on the tower and subject to further review in five years when the telecommunications ordinance was expected to be finalized, according to BZA records.

The land is currently zoned for agricultural and residential use only, said Dave Hardy, a supervising planner at the Sonoma County Permit Resource Department. He said Article 88, Section 130, of the Sonoma County Zoning Regulations states there are minimum criteria applicable to telecommunication facilities.

“Big, tall towers in this district aren’t allowed unless you can’t go anywhere else,” Hardy said. “They haven’t made that showing.”

CalSites—a two-person shop in Santa Rosa, Calif.—manages the site. Owner and amateur-radio operator Allen Ferrera holds the master lease for the towers and sublets to tenants. Ferrera said he is serving amateur, public-safety and commercial operation while awaiting permit approval but insisted he and Donecker have followed permit-application procedures for renewal, paid fees due and waited more than seven years for a response from the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments—with little advancement towards a resolution.

Sonoma County officials have let Donecker and CalSites operate without incident until recently, when the two asked the zoning board to change the pending permit application to include commercial-antennas in order to support Verizon Wireless services, Ferrera said. Instead, in their latest ruling, county zoning commissioners unanimously rejected his request for a conditional, commercial permit extension.

Ferrera added he is confused by the controversy, because there has been no official notice that the tower runs afoul of local zoning laws nor have they received a notice of violation. In addition, the board’s Mitigated Negative Declaration showed the addition of commercial antennas would not have an effect on the environment and scenic views.

Government bureaucracy and incompetence led to the current situation, Ferrera said. In addition, neighbors moving into the area—buying houses averaging $800,000—have complained the tower is unsightly and an eyesore against the rural northern California landscape of 85-foot Cypress trees. Depending on the board’s ruling, these commercial services will not be allowed to operate from the English Hill tower and public-safety agencies may be forced to find another telecom site to support first-responder communications.

Moreover, if CalSites loses its appeal, the tower will remain and revert back to the amateur permit, Ferrera said.

“The tower’s not going anywhere,” Donecker said. “That’s what makes this whole situation idiotic.”

The Board of Supervisors is reviewing an appeal from CalSite, which has requested a permit to continue operating amateur, public-safety and commercial services in its current location. A ruling is expected in January 2007.

“Until the board acts, there is no final decision,” Hardy said.