Mt. Diablo Towers Face County Challenge
Jul 4, 1999, 9:00pm PDT Updated Jul 4, 1999, 9:00pm PDT
Jackhammer in hand, Knox La Rue carved out what may be the most scenic route in the East Bay ? the last half mile to the craggy summit of Mt. Diablo's North Peak.
Forty years later, environmentalists would rather have him ? and his five antenna towers ? gone from the 3,557-foot crow's nest. And for the second time in two years, Contra Costa County officials will decide whether to pull La Rue's land use permit for the 90-foot towers in what is shaping up as the first major test of the county's year-old telecommunications tower policy.
The 76-year-old Stockton businessman, who owns 12 other radio tower sites from Tulare to Sacramento, said he has cleaned up the mountain top and satisfied the new requirements.
"Everything they have asked me to do, I have done," said La Rue, who also owns two radio stations in Stockton and two more in Fresno.
La Rue does not remember which year in the 1950s he bought the peak from the Crocker-Winship estate of railroad and banking fame. He later sold it to the state but kept an easement. No-one complained much about La Rue's towers until Chevron added a tower in 1978.
Heeding environmental sensibilities, Chevron dismantled its site in December, leaving a gravel pad a few hundred feet below La Rue's on the dinosaur-back ridge.
La Rue feels critics ignore the benefits his towers bring, such as the signals routed through North Peak to their pagers. More than 70 television and radio stations and other companies rely on antennas mounted on La Rue's towers.
After the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, microwave dishes on La Rue's towers served as the state Office of Emergency Services' only link to its Pleasant Hill center. The system connecting Kaiser Permanente's clinics and hospitals throughout Northern California stayed up during the earthquake because of its dozen-plus microwave dishes on North Peak.
"They want communications. There has to be some place to put it," said the Stockton businessman. "Certain systems need to be up on mountain tops."
La Rue received a 10-year extension of his county permit last year. But the Board of Supervisors required him to come back for a one-year review. That forced him to address the county's new requirements to combine antennas and tear down towers where possible and eliminate them when new technology becomes available.
Darwin Myers, a consultant who handles most of the county's antenna and tower applications, expects to complete his recommendation for La Rue's permit in August.
Save Mount Diablo, the environmental group that has helped shepherd the state park's expansion for nearly three decades, accuses La Rue of failing to remove debris and spruce up the four utility buildings.
"Do we think there are sites up there that should be removed? Yes," said Seth Adams, Save Mount Diablo's director of land programs. "We're not going to disclose too much of our game plan yet.
"We're not trying to get rid of all the towers on Mount Diablo. We're just trying to see incremental positive change."
La Rue declares the mountain top to be "pretty squeaky clean."
Other than a rectangular wooden box that passes for a step to one utility trailer, the sites appear clean and orderly. Microwave dishes up to ten-feet in diameter sport a month-old coat of gray paint, the color selected by the county.
Most of the litter on the mountain top comes from hikers who make their way down from Mount Diablo's slightly higher, more accessible main peak, said Robert La Rue, who runs the tower sites for his father's business.
"I've been up here since I was a kid, just throwing rocks around and stuff," said the 33-year-old La Rue, who went straight from high school to the family business and who, like his brother Knox Jr., is one of three employees.
Antennas that could be consolidated already have, he said, by running three cables into a single antenna tube. Only one tower has much steel left where new antennas could be strapped.
"We don't want to take down any towers. That's our business," said La Rue.