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Antenna dispute

Kathleen Wolf is among the Old Town neighbors protesting Jeff Hullquist's 55-foot-tall amateur radio antenna in his Coombs Street backyard. 

A yearlong neighborhood dispute over the appropriateness of a 55-foot amateur radio antenna in the backyard of an Old Town home will drag on for at least a few more months.

The City Council on Tuesday asked for a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review to determine what impact – if any – Jeff Hullquist’s tower at his Coombs Street home has on the cultural integrity of the historic Napa neighborhood.

“I believe there is some substantial evidence in the record that there may be significant impact under CEQA on the historic district,” Councilwoman Juliana Inman said.

The council on Tuesday heard several appeals: Hullquist appealed a November Planning Commission decision to limit tower usage to overnight and evening hours, as well as lower the tower when not in use; his neighbors appealed an earlier Cultural Heritage Commission ruling that initially deemed the tower suitable.

Any formal decision on the tower’s future will be delayed until after the review, which will decide how the tower affects the quality of life in the neighborhood. And it’s likely that several city boards, including the Planning Commission, will have to weigh in again before the matter returns to the council.

“I do believe that we have discretion in whether to permit the antenna or not, in terms of exceeding our zoning standards. I think we need to look at what the impact is,” Inman said.

This dispute has raged since last February after Hullquist, a ham radio enthusiast, constructed the tower on his property at 467 Coombs. But zoning laws limit structures over 30 feet, city officials said, and Hullquist was forced to retroactively apply for the necessary permits.

His neighbors’ initial shock upon seeing the “unsightly” tower has been replaced by resentment, anger and a growing sense of dread that their idyllic, cozy district would be forced to live forever with the stain of wires and cables looming above their heads.

As Hullquist argues his right to broadcast transmissions across the world, communication with his neighbors has ended.

Lon and Linsey Gallagher, who also live on Coombs, brought a lawyer to the hearing. Hullquist did, too.

Linsey Gallagher told the council that Hullquist was selfish, allowing his hobby to destroy his neighbors’ views. She questioned whether the tower was a safety hazard for her two young children.

“I didn’t ask for this, and I have to defend my family against it,” Linsey Gallagher said.

“I can’t escape the gaze of this PG&E substation apparatus from any of the windows in my home, or from anywhere in my backyard, for that matter. It’s massive,” she said.

City staffers told the council that neither side was willing to bend.

Council members agreed that limiting Hullquist’s hours of use likely clashed with federal law, which says radio operators must be reasonably accommodated. Limiting or restricting usage isn’t likely legal.

But “reasonable” is a broad term, said Councilman Peter Mott. The law doesn’t entitle Hullquist to build a tower as high as he wants, even if a shorter tower limits his range.

“A rancher in Nevada might say 200 feet is reasonable for his tower,” he said. “I don’t know if the federal government is saying Mr. Hullquist gets to broadcast to France.”

Vice Mayor Scott Sedgley said he was frustrated that Hullquist built his tower before getting the necessary permits, a classic case of asking for forgiveness rather than permission.

If Hullquist had gone the established route, Sedgley said, it’s possible much of the animosity with his neighbors and ensuing headaches could have been avoided.

“Unfortunately, this has used lots of taxpayer resources to try to get some resolve,” Sedgley said.

Mott agreed.

“You can’t change a lightbulb in a historic district without checking to see if it’s the right lightbulb,” he said.

The council might not be the final word on the dispute, however.

Hullquist said after the meeting that the environment study was a nonsense decision intended to harm him financially. He’s required to pay for the CEQA report, which could cost him thousands.

Depending on discussions with his lawyer, Hullquist said, he might take the matter to federal court.

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