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With Verizon’s plans for a citywide network of “small cell” antennas running into interference in Santa Rosa, the company is turning to a higher power to help it boost its network service in the city.

Churches are becoming an increasingly important partner for the nation’s wireless provider as it seeks locations lofty enough for its powerful wireless antennas to have the greatest reach.

The company is even offering big bucks to build steeples for churches that aren’t blessed with such soaring structures.

“Churches are having hard times right now, so it has been somewhat helpful to us,” said Rob Bowman, pastor at Westview Christian Church in southwest Santa Rosa.

Verizon paid for the permitting and construction of the 68-foot steeple and nearby shed to house related equipment, paying the church an undisclosed sum to lease the space. After nearly three years in the works, the facility, which contains six powerful wireless antennas, went live earlier this year.

There have been no complaints from neighbors or from parishioners, who know the church needs the modest sum the lease provides, Bowman said.

“It’s helping to generate some revenues that are needed, but we’re not rolling in it,” he said.

Bowman thinks the steeple improves upon what was an otherwise aesthetically unremarkable building.

“I think it gives it a little more character,” he said.

Now Verizon is trying to replicate that success on the east side of the city, proposing a 62-foot steeple at the Community Baptist Church on Sonoma Avenue.

The project gets its first public airing Wednesday evening at 6 p.m., at 637 First St., across the street from City Hall.

The project is an example of how Verizon works to ensure its wireless facilities blend in with neighborhoods, going to great lengths to camouflage them when possible, whether as trees, cacti or boulders, or by installing them in structures that fit with surrounding architecture, said spokeswoman Heidi Flato. It’s a costly proposition, but one that has multiple benefits, she said.

“I think it’s a solution that works if we find the right partner,” she said.

AT&T installed an array several years ago in a 35-foot-tall steeple at Christ Church United Methodist on Yulupa Avenue.

Verizon says the six antennas that will be housed in the Community Baptist steeple will significantly improve coverage on the east side of Santa Rosa between downtown and Montgomery Village. Coverage would be improved not only for area residents but for the nearby doctors and medical officers in the area, and emergency services, as well.

Maps provided by the company show a large area along Sonoma Avenue where coverage would be dramatically improved. The company said it considered three different properties in the area, including Memorial Hospital and Montgomery High School, with which the company negotiated for two years before settling on the church.

Many of the properties in the coverage area Verizon is seeking to improve are zoned residential, which limits the siting of wireless facilities, the company said in its application.

Terms of the deal with Community Baptist were not available. Church officials didn’t not respond to calls Tuesday.

How to help

Alliance Medical Center has set up a GoFundMe account on behalf of the family to help with funeral expenses. To donate, go here. The Chavarria family has also set up a GoFundMe account. To donate, go here. Donations to both accounts will go to the family.

The company’s application is not complete, so Santa Rosa planner Andrew Trippel couldn’t say how long the application process will take. The neighborhood meeting was required by the city because such facilities are “typically sensitive” for residential neighborhoods, he said.

Flato said she’s well aware that a 62-foot tower in an established residential area may meet with some resistance, but said lots of thought has gone in to doing it sensitively. The project is unrelated to the rollout of the “small-cell” network in the city, but both share the goal of improving coverage.

“We are really prioritizing Santa Rosa these days because we know that there is work to be done,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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