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Sheriff’s communications tower could sprout at Botanic Garden

In pockets of Encinitas, Sheriff’s deputies requesting backup sometimes hear their car radios spit out garbled static. Likewise, firefighters with hand-held devices can’t always communicate how quickly a fire is spreading or a victim’s status.

To cut down on broken transmissions, the Sheriff’s Department wants to install a 60-foot-tall communications tower on a corner of the San Diego Botanic Garden that overlooks the ocean.

Safety officials’ communications suffer in coastal Encinitas because of the hilly terrain and interference from competing cellphone towers.

The problem came to a head about a decade ago during an officer-involved shooting in downtown Encinitas, said Donald Root, operations manager of the San Diego Sheriff’s Wireless Services Division: “The officers were unable to communicate their need for assistance.”

In 2005, the Sheriff’s Department installed smaller antennae systems to support a 20-foot tower on Encinitas Boulevard and Coast Highway 101, but communication problems remain because of the surrounding topography and more cellphone towers popping up.

“It’s a combination of you can’t hear the radio system and that you can’t talk into it,” Root said.

The botanic garden, perched above small ravines and hills to the west, was chosen to host the tower to maximize the signal strength. Another reason: The tower is slated to go on the county-owned portion of the Botanic Garden, meaning the Sheriff’s Department won’t have to pay for the land.

“We’re not having to spend taxpayer funds to acquire the real estate,” Root said. He said his division researched a dozen other sites in Encinitas in the past year before arriving at the garden as the ideal spot.

To make the project more aesthetically pleasing, the tower would be disguised as a wooden water tank, measuring 15 feet to 20 feet in diameter.

Still, the Botanic Garden’s board has reservations about losing part of its prime ocean view.

“While we’re very concerned about public safety, we’re also wanting to make sure that the garden’s important assets, in this case our ocean views, are protected,” said Julian Duval, executive director of the Botanic Garden.

The communications tower would go on the garden’s dirt lot off Saxony Road, on the property’s western edge. That space is now used as overflow parking. But under the garden’s master plan, the lot will eventually serve as the garden’s new entrance, which “would make use of and highlight those ocean views,” Duval said.

The Leichtag Foundation is looking to gift around 12 acres of its adjacent land to the Botanic Garden for a potential arts village and other amenities. So, Duval said, the tower installation would need to take those plans into account.

“We need to go about this very, very carefully,” he said.

Root said the Sheriff’s Department is hoping the new tower is up and running at the garden within the next year to 18 months.

The San Diego Board of Supervisors, which governs county matters, would have to sign off on the communications tower, according to Root. And the California Coastal Commission would have to approve it, too, given its closeness to the coast. Meeting dates haven’t been set yet.

Because the tower would be installed on county land, there’s a question over whether it would trigger Proposition A, said Root. The land-use initiative, passed last year, requires a public vote for Encinitas projects over 30 feet.

Supervisor Dave Roberts, whose district includes Encinitas, said finding a location for the tower demands balancing various interests.

“With the plans for the garden, with the needs for the public safety, how can we try and make all this work together?” Roberts said. “That’s where we are right now.”

Roberts toured the potential home for the tower last week with garden and public safety officials. Upon his suggestion, story poles will be erected in the next month to provide an idea of the project’s footprint.

“If the garden is indeed determined as the best place, we need to story-pole it so people around there can give input,” Roberts said.

Besides the visual impact, communications towers occasionally prompt safety worries.

Roberts said when he was on the Solana Beach City Council, some residents claimed cellphone towers caused health problems. In response to council direction, the city attorney amended any resolutions addressing towers to note that the Federal Government has determined they’re safe, Roberts noted.

Jaime Urrutia, senior radio communications engineer with the Sheriff’s Wireless Services Division, echoed that there’s no risk.

“As always when we install a new radio site, we will have independent consultants do studies and certify that the tower is safe,” Urrutia said.

The tower and its installation would cost roughly $500,000, which would come from a county fund reserved for tower maintenance.

Plans call for the tower to replace the 20-foot tall radio system at Encinitas Boulevard and Coast Highway 101.

The new tower would strengthen communications not only in Encinitas, but also in the coastal parts of Carlsbad, Solana Beach and Del Mar.

And the tower aims to make up for the loss of a Sheriff’s antenna at the Encina Power Plant, slated to be demolished late 2017.

“At this point, we believe that is the one and only spot,” Urrutia said.


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