If fences make good neighbors, cellphone towers tear them apart.
Administrators of St. John’s College in Santa Fe should have learned that lesson by now. They didn’t.
St. John’s tried last summer to foist an ugly cellphone tower on the city’s historic district, only to lose in decisive style. Now it’s back with a plan every bit as confused and unappealing as the first one. All of this has happened in less than a year, proving persistence isn’t always a virtue.
St. John’s first wanted a 75-foot cell tower camouflaged as a tree. The renderings looked like surreal vegetation from The Wizard of Oz.
Because the college is part of the historic district, it couldn’t do as it pleased by simply hiring a developer to build the towering blob. St. John’s needed city approval to exceed the allowable height of 16 feet for structures.
The Historic Districts Review Board rejected the campus tower in a 5-0 vote.
St. John’s new pitch is for a 65-foot monopole, undisguised in any way. The tower’s proposed location is 1160 Camino De Cruz Blanca, near Atalaya Trailhead.
Members of the review board are scheduled to inspect the site at noon Tuesday, then consider the proposal for the tower at a meeting the same evening.
The St. John’s campus covers 250 acres. Why place a cellphone tower on a high-profile section like the trailhead?
In search of an answer, I phoned the developer of the proposed tower, Sean Milks of Gravity Pad Partners LLC. He said he was merely an agent for AT&T. Milks referred me to a spokesman for the communications giant, Robert Digneo. In turn, Digneo said someone with a public relations company would answer my questions on behalf of AT&T.
Ninety minutes later, Digneo sent me a message stating the St. John’s campus tower was not an AT&T project. Unexplained is why the conglomerate is listed as the applicant.
Carol Carpenter, a spokeswoman for St. John’s College, gave this account of the proposal: “Gravity Pad approached St. John’s about putting a cell tower on our campus. … If the tower is approved by the Historic Review Board, and if we then agree to allow its construction, we will negotiate a contract with them.”
She said the college supports the plan for a 65-foot tower. St. John’s students and employees “struggle with poor and inconsistent [cellphone] access, which creates multiple challenges, including safety concerns.”
Any revenue the college makes from the tower would go to scholarships, Carpenter added.
Opponents of the project say the college could find other sites on its campus, preferably within a building. St. John’s United Methodist Church, 1200 Old Pecos Trail, has done just that. Telecommunications equipment within a modest tower looks like part of the church.
Stephen Durkovich, an attorney opposing the project, says the tower should be scotched for a fundamental reason.
“The proposal is not in harmony with the area,” he said.
To the surprise of no one, money figures in the site selection. Cheap and easy to build, the 65-foot monopole would attract clients.
“This particular cell tower is not an AT&T project, although AT&T is one of probably several wireless companies that may have serious interest in placing their equipment on it,” Digneo wrote in an email.
The tower could be a cash cow for some, but all the milk it emits wouldn’t be pure.
“Sixty-five feet is way higher than any other structure in that streetscape,” said David Rasch, who for 15 years was the city’s historic preservation officer.
He intends to ask the review board to postpone a decision on the tower so alternative sites can be explored.
Rebecca Wurzburger, a former city councilor, says she wants the review board to reject the proposal. She will be at the proposed location Tuesday when board members inspect it.
No discussion will be allowed during the tour, Wurzburger said, but a silent protest against the tower’s size and location is needed.
Bob Snow, a 19-year resident of the area, isn’t quiet about his opposition.
“We don’t think St. John’s has been a very good neighbor on this,” he said. “Let’s think about Santa Fe as a community. You’re putting this cell tower at the trailhead of a gorgeous spot.”
Looks aren’t everything, but St. John’s College seems to appreciate aesthetics. It boasts of having two “spectacular campuses,” one in Annapolis, Md., and the other in Santa Fe.
The college’s promotional material paints an idyllic picture — students reading the great books of Western civilization near Chesapeake Bay or the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, not a cell tower in sight.