AT&T is hoping that a new cell tower on a hilltop at the Point Reyes Vineyards will improve call quality, signal strength and wireless services along the shore of Tomales Bay and in Point Reyes Station. The proposed 76-foot structure, which will be visible from various points along Highway 1, will be disguised as an old wooden water tower, according to a permit application submitted to Marin County earlier this month. 

Steve Doughty, who owns the vineyard, said AT&T will pay him a modest rent, though he declined to specify the amount. More important is the benefit to the community, he said. “This should give the millions of tourists who visit here cell service, and the locals, too. I thought it would benefit most people around here,” Mr. Doughty said.

The water tower would hold antennas for 4G wireless signals and small cell technology for 5G along with other necessary equipment, like backup generators. The plan to build a tower at the vineyard has been in the works for five years, and the company has completed a biological assessment. A radio frequency-electromagnetic energy compliance report conducted by the company found the installation would comply with Federal Communications Commission regulations. The project will need a coastal permit.

AT&T’s application states that the tower would provide wireless service to 450 homes in the area. Ken Levin, president of the Point Reyes Station Village Association, said the group doesn’t have any major objection to the project and generally supports more widespread cell coverage. Service in town is unreliable because the nearest cell towers are in Nicasio, Tocaloma and Tomales. 

“We like the idea that it’s supposed to look like a wooden water tower,” Mr. Levin said. “That’s better than a metal tree.”

Plans for cell towers in West Marin have alarmed some locals in recent years, and the expansion of 5G infrastructure in the county at large met significant local opposition. Last December, in response to a proposed AT&T cell tower at the Point Reyes Lighthouse, a discussion about the potentially harmful health impacts of cell towers drew about 100 participants to a community meeting at the Point Reyes Community Presbyterian Church. 

In the last decade, county-approved towers in Nicasio and the Point Reyes National Seashore also raised community concerns. Yet there are few ways to stop a new cell tower. 

The Federal Communications Commission requires local governments to permit any project that would fill in a major service gap, curtailing their right to deny permits because of radiation concerns as long as the project meets federal standards. 

“As a rule of thumb, federal law supersedes state and local laws,” county planner Immanuel Bereket said. “And federal laws heavily favor the telecom industry.”

In 2019, the Board of Supervisors responded to public pressure to push back against the federal laws that hamstrung local opposition to 5G expansion. The board passed an ordinance that created certain procedural and aesthetic guidelines for new cellular infrastructure, but it could not respond to the health concerns of some constituents. 

The previous year, Marin joined a lawsuit with a coalition of other local governments over various aspects of the F.C.C.’s 5G regulations. Last year, a panel of federal judges upheld most of the regulations while easing some restrictions on aesthetic requirements made by local governments.

Ultimately, the county is allowed to raise only aesthetic or design concerns as grounds to condition a telecommunications proposal. Marin has its own set of concealment policies, hence the faux-water tower design planned for the vineyard.

The county also generally requires that cell tower projects accommodate the colocation of equipment from other cell carriers to prevent the need for multiple nearby towers. One exception was AT&T’s tower in Tomales, which was approved adjacent to another 20-foot Verizon antenna because of a conflict with the existing structure. 

The proposed water-tower antenna at the vineyard is designed to accommodate another carrier’s equipment, AT&T said.

Mr. Doughty is still hoping to sell the Point Reyes Vineyards, but said he plans to take it off the market if he can’t find a buyer by the end of the year. He’s ready to retire and is already selling all his grapes to Schramsberg Vineyards, a Napa County champagne producer. The rent from AT&T could be attractive to prospective buyers, Mr. Doughty said, though it doesn’t amount to much. “Guaranteed it’s not a big moneymaker,” he said.