Routt County Planning Commission denies cell tower in rural neighborhood by 4-3 vote

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— After a nearly 2 1/2-hour public hearing Thursday night that was marked by frequent applause and a smattering of profanity from the audience of 40 people, the Routt County Planning Commission voted, 4-3, to deny a permit sought by Union Wireless to build a new telecommunication tower 8 miles south of Steamboat Springs.

The vote to deny will be final and will not be referred to the Routt County Board of Commissioners unless Union Wireless announces within the next five days its intent to appeal, Planning Director Chad Phillips said. If the denial stands, it would take the site off the table for a full year.

That would be fine with most of the people who stood before the microphone to explain to the Planning Commission why they feel the proposed tower, which Union Wireless sought to aim digital cellphone data at a microwave tower above 10,500 feet on Walton Peak, is inappropriate in their residential neighborhood.

“This is a place people can go and feel comfortable and not be invaded by a monstrosity,” Big Valley Ranch homeowner Ton Knoll said. “I really can’t believe I’m standing here. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a Planning Commission would give permission for an 80-foot or 50-foot tower” in a residential neighborhood.

Knoll was not confused about the height of the tower being proposed for her rural neighborhood. Union Wireless representative Jim Malone announced at the top of the meeting that on Wednesday, his company decided to revise its plans downward from an 80-foot, lattice-style tower to a 55-foot, mono-pole tower.

“We know there’s a lot of opposition to this site,” Malone said. “We’ve been characterized as a company that snuck around to do this, one that’s not transparent and is bullying our way through, but that’s simply not the case. We followed every requirement the county has. More importantly, we want to amend our application because we have heard the outcry and opposition from the public.”

County Planner Kristy Winser told the Planning Commission that the county discourages the location of a wireless facility in close proximity to neighborhoods and prefers that they be placed in industrial districts and co-located on existing cell towers when possible.

Referring to a balloon test used to simulate the height of the originally proposed 80-foot tower, Winser said, “The finding was the tower could be seen significantly above the tree line from several locations on country roads.”

She added that Colorado Parks and Wildlife did not feel the facility would have a negative impact on deer, elk, bears or mountain lions that frequent the area.

Gary Engle, a trial lawyer and a neighbor in Hilton Gulch for 18 years, urged Routt County to retain a specialized consulting firm to help develop a comprehensive approach to managing the development and location of telecommunications towers across the county.

Another neighbor, Kevin Sankey, pointed out that AT&T/Cingular, which successfully won county approval for nine new cell towers in 2012, began the process by deploying a team of engineers to develop cellphone coverage plots and maps of alternative sites.

“Cingular voluntarily pulled back on a site in Yampa (that met with public opposition) and proposed an alternative site that was unopposed,” Sankey said. “With Union, there are no coverage plots and alternate sites.”

At the end of the night, the Planning Commission seemed put off by the last-minute changes Malone proposed even though he was attempting to offer a less-intrusive tower.

“The whole game changed,” commission member Bob Woodmansee said. “The tower we reviewed is not on the table. I’m very concerned with the due diligence issue. I don’t think we have enough information to be able to make a decision. If it was up to me right now, it would be to (vote to) table or deny.”

Commission Chairman Jay Gallagher seemed to agree, noting that commission members had an idea, from planning staff’s analysis, how the 80-foot tower would have looked on the landscape.

“We don’t know what 55 foot looks like,” Gallagher said. “It’s ... lower. It leaves us at a disadvantage.”

Commission member Tom Effinger moved to deny the permit citing what he said were aspects of the proposed tower and related utility buildings that represent inconsistencies with provisions in the county master plan because they “contribute to the degradation of the natural environment (with the potential for) adding to noise and visual pollution.”

Voting with Effinger were Gallagher, Andy Benjamin and Woodmansee. Commission members Richard Klumker, Steven Warnke and Brian Arel, all of whom were leaning toward a tabling motion, dissented.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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