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The view of Lake Hennessey from a mountain bike trail in Moore Creek Park. Napa County's Planning Commission has approved a cell tower that will provide coverage for much of the park. 

A 127-foot-tall fake pine tree might not be the most scenic feature, but one targeted for a remote Sage Canyon ridge could be a lifesaver during an emergency in such places as Moore Creek Park.

The Napa County Planning Commission on Wednesday approved a new AT&T cell tower along Highway 128 in rugged terrain several miles east of Napa Valley. It will be disguised as a pine tree amid oaks and brush on a ridge 630 feet above the road.

“Everyone knows as soon as you hit Sage Canyon, you have no service,” said consultant Tom Johnson on behalf of AT&T.

The tower, when built, might be visible from sections of Moore Creek Park, a nature park with 15 miles of trails near Lake Hennessey. But if so, it would be a distant view at two miles, county officials said.

“Having spent a lot of time in the Moore Creek-Lake Hennessey open space, I’m well aware of the lack of cell coverage there,” Commissioner Anne Cottrell said. “To me, I see this cell tower as providing a big safety benefit for folks hiking and biking in that area.”

An AT&T coverage map shows the tower should provide cell service to much, though not all, of Moore Creek Park.

Napa County zoning laws require telecommunications facilities to be “effectively unnoticeable” from roads and public gathering places. A county report said the views of the Sage Canyon tower from Highway 128 are distant and limited.

Still, the tower will be visible from certain spots on the road. That left the Planning Commission to choose what design will be the least obtrusive.

The commission in 2013 and again in 2018 decided towers near Lake Berryessa should be plain poles with antennas. Having fake pines in areas without pine forests would be even more conspicuous, county officials reasoned.

Commissioners this time decided to go with the faux pine. Commissioner Jeri Hansen didn’t think the fake tree will fool anyone, though.

“Let’s be honest, we all know that these trees are cell towers and we kind of chuckle and we can see them, because they’re way above the ridgeline,” Hansen said. “But we also recognize that there’s a need and a use for them.”

Commissioner Andrew Mazotti explored whether other cellular providers will want cell towers in Sage Canyon, or if one tower can serve all.

Johnson said AT&T will own the tower. He didn’t know what plans Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile might have.

“Fortunately, this tower design, being that it’s 127 feet tall, can allow for additional carriers to add to that structure, so that new infrastructure doesn’t need to be added,” Johnson said.

County Principal Planner John McDowell said the county strongly encourages the co-location of cell tower infrastructure. Subsequent providers would have to show why they couldn’t use the tower.

Commissioner Dave Whitmer asked what other AT&T cell towers are planned to close coverage gaps in rural Napa County.

“There are a couple other projects we are analyzing right now in Napa County that are similar in nature,” Johnson said. “Pope Valley is one that also has zero coverage that we’re looking to bring to the commission very soon.”

The Sage Canyon faux pine cell tower will be a little taller than the steeple on downtown Napa’s historic First Presbyterian church. But it will be dwarfed by the tallest redwoods that reach over 350 feet.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.