City's wireless efforts causing static

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— Even after city staff took a 90-day break to analyze cellular facility land permits, the residents of Steamboat Springs are still waiting for their fuzzy cellular connections to clear up. But whether the city is dragging its heels on this issue, or simply considering all the possible complications with cellular facilities, is still up for question.
City Council, at the request of Planning Director Wendie Schulenberg, moved to go ahead with a master plan to deal with cellular facilities Tuesday night. During a one-hour council work session run by Schulenberg, council members offered suggestions about drafting the master plan. Their suggestions, each of which was voted on to become part of the master plan, included instituting submittal requirements such as design plans, having a multi-level review process, and requiring flexible designs of facilities to make sure they are inconspicuous. Providers can make wireless facilities look like trees or blend in with buildings.
Council members liked those ideas, but were unsure whether or not they will place wireless facility development permits on hold while staff draws up the master plan.
"We don't want to delay anything unnecessarily," Councilwoman Kathy Connell said.
The planning department wants to draft a master plan to handle cell tower development, and will ask council Oct. 10 for permission to start work on one.
Previously, the permits were dealt with on a minor and major permit basis, Schulenberg said. Some may have been administratively approved by city staff, she added.
Before the master plan can be drafted, Schulenberg will first meet with the potential service providers to determine their needs.
Meanwhile, residents, tourists and cellular businesses continue to wait for expanded digital service.
"We have had quite a bit of a problem with our cell phone service. If you're in different pockets of the county and you're talking to somebody in Steamboat, you can lose your signal. That's very common," said Eric Steinberg of Steinberg Resort Properties. "As Realtors, the cell phone is a really important device. It can really be infuriating when you're showing a house and you're making an important call and the other person gets cut off," he said.
Some Realtors Steinberg knows use Denver-based wireless services for important calls.
The two wireless telecommunications companies currently offering service in Steamboat are Verizon Wireless, which offers analog service, and Union Cellular, which offers analog and digital. When the Federal Communications Commission first established rules governing wireless telecommunications over a decade ago, it allowed only two providers in each area. With the advent of new types of wireless service such as PCS technology, those rules have loosened.
Now, companies like Sprint are anxious to build sites in Steamboat so that they can tap local and tourist populations that want wireless service. Representatives for Sprint are complaining about the delays.
"The city of Steamboat Springs is acting like they have to reinvent the wheel," said Richard Leiser, a telecommunications consultant for Liberty Wirestar, which is handling a Sprint PCS site acquisition in Steamboat. "They don't seem to have it together."
Leiser felt that the city should simply follow other communities, such as Craig and Hayden, which have forged ahead with plans to allow wireless facilities to be constructed.
"We've been letting Sprint dangle for a while," Schulenberg acknowledged.
She added that there are three other service providers that are also waiting to construct facilities.
Last year, Sprint proposed replacing an old antenna on the top of Barrows chairlift at Howelsen Hill in order to give Steamboat residents and visitors digital cellular service. The city Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of Sprint's site on Oct. 29, 1999.
When the proposal went before City Council, however, it tabled it after hearing from another cellular company that was wary of Sprint's plans.
Because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, wireless companies have to be allowed equal access to facilities sites. Although the companies can co-locate their facilities, the poles and towers housing the facilities would grow with each added company. The city was worried that Howelsen would come to look like a pincushion.
In addition, the city has applied to have Howelsen Hill designated as an historic site, protecting it from wireless construction. That application is still pending.
The 90-day moratorium on land use permits for wireless telecommunications facilities began July 18. The moratorium was intended to give the city a chance to figure out how to deal with giving permits to cellular facilities. Council wanted to study such variables as the effect of radiofrequency radiation on the health and safety of humans and the environment and to check on the legal issues involved.
As the 90 days near a close, however, the city has still not come to any hard conclusions on how to deal with cellular towers and transmitters.
"I really think we need to get to it," said Councilman Bud Romberg. "I think that the fact that Wendie had the presentation is evidence that there is recognition of that fact. Hopefully, we'll get it together, get it right and get it done."

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203 or e-mail asalzman@amigo.net

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