Union Wireless wins appeal to build monopine cell tower south of Steamboat Springs

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— The Routt County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a new Union Wireless telecommunications tower in the midst of two rural subdivisions south of Steamboat Springs.

The 3-0 vote reversed two previous votes of denial by the county Planning Commission, each of which passed by a single vote. It also disappointed a significant number of the neighbors who stood up to speak their minds during the course of four lengthy public hearings that began in late September 2013.

About 30 people attended Tuesday’s hearing, which lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. Those in opposition claimed the new tower is not needed to provide cellular service to much of the Big Valley Ranch and Hilton Gulch subdivisions and will clash with the rural character of the neighborhood. They criticized Union officials for not doing more to justify their choice of site on a 35-acre residential parcel owned by Christian and Laura Karch.

The Planning Commission rejected Union’s request to build the tower, which will be built to resemble a pine tree, after a majority agreed that the tower had the potential to degrade the environment and contribute to noise and visual pollution.

However, the county commissioners focused on whether Union had gone far enough to mitigate the visual intrusion on the hilly neighborhood.

Commissioner Steve Ivancie noted that there is a requirement in the county development code that prohibits locating cell towers in proximity to residential developments.

“This is an emotional issue,” Ivancie said. “As county commissioners, we have to put that aside and look at this objectively. ... I’m satisfied there is a need for (additional) coverage out there for Union customers in our area. I think the proponent has done the best they can to mitigate the effect of this monopole. They have shortened the height and camouflaged it.”

The commissioners did agree, however, with detractors of Union’s plan who criticized the company for being vague about the specific details of the monopine tower they intend to build.

Union Director of Engineering Kevin Kleinsmith showed an image of several types of monopines but said he deliberately didn’t select a specific model before the hearing in part because he didn’t want to incur the expense until his permit was granted and because he didn’t want to presume which monopine design would suit the community.

“These towers no longer look like ugly pine trees, they look much more like (real) pine trees,” Kleinsmith said. “We’re not trying to build Franken-pine. This is an ideal use for a monopine. We’re trying to make sure ours does not become a visual draw but just blends in with local foliage.”

Steamboat Springs attorney John Vanderbloemen, who represented some homeowners at the hearing, said it was not reasonable to him that Kleinsmith could not be more specific about the monopine his company would install.

“The idea they can’t suggest a specific monopine to you just astounds me,” Vanderbloemen said. “Who decides? The building department? (Planning Director) Chad (Phillips)? (Staff planner) Kristy (Winser)? This is a public hearing. Everyone should have a chance to hear what it will be.”

Ultimately, at the insistence of Commission Chairman Tim Corrigan, the commissioners accepted a portion of Vanderbloemen’s advice.

The vote to approve the tower requires Union Wireless to consult with Phillips and Winser on the selection of a monopine that resembles a native evergreen, with some specific constraints on its maximum girth and how far its branches can extend beyond the top of the actual 50-foot cell tower in order to achieve a tapered look.

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

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