Our View: Cell tower planning process needs work
November 23, 2013
Increasing our telecommunications connectivity is of the utmost importance to the community, but nobody wants that new cell tower in his or her picture window. We get that.
But we think the bumpy trip through the Routt County planning process, which is being endured late this fall by Union Wireless and residents of two rural subdivisions south of Steamboat Springs, could have been avoided. At this point, it's as much about the process as it is about whether the Big Valley Ranch and Hilton Gulch neighborhoods are an appropriate location for a telecommunications tower. At this juncture, we are not taking a position on whether the new Union Wireless permit should be issued.
What we do know is that the county planning process to date hasn't been fair to the proponent or the opponents of the plan.
To review, eight weeks have passed since the Routt County Planning Commission voted, 4-3, to recommend denial of a permit for Union's plan to build a new tower about 8 miles south of Steamboat in a rural neighborhood that affords some spectacular views of surrounding mountains, and the issue is no closer to being resolved.
Union muddied the water right off the bat Sept. 19 when it announced too late that it wanted to amend its published proposal and build a shorter, "stealthier" tower. The amended plan lacked detail, and everyone would have been better off had Planning Commission voted to table the application without discussing it.
Instead, after nearly two hours of discussion, during which some members of the audience uttered profanities, Planning Commission voted, 4-3, to deny the permit. That was well within its purview. But the reality is that Planning Commission's authority is a technicality. That's because Union had the right to appeal to the Routt County Board of Commissioners, and it did just that.
Planning Commission comprises a solid group of volunteer residents willing to work hard until late hours, sometimes facing an emotional group of residents while making tough decisions. They deserve a little more guidance from the Board of Commissioners and staff when it comes to telecomm towers.
The problem is, some members of Planning Commission expressed the opinion that they didn't need to hear the details of Union's less-intrusive tower, saying they would deny it at that location no matter. At that point, the wheels of the county process were in motion, and once Union acted on its right to appeal, a hearing was set before the three county commissioners Nov. 12.
Another crowd of residents showed up to express their opposition, including some who reportedly flew in for the hearing. Not surprisingly, the county commissioners, after conferring with the county attorney, already were leaning toward tabling the cell tower application in order to send it back to Planning Commission so it could do what it should have done in the first place: schedule a new hearing to give everyone involved the opportunity to consider the smaller tower.
It was the right decision but also a prime example of how the sometimes torturous public process makes well-intentioned people in the private sector crazy.
Union Wireless is a well-intentioned company with deep roots in the Colorado and Wyoming region. But it has yet to convince anyone that there aren't other alternatives to building a cell tower disguised as an evergreen tree in the midst of rural residential sites.
We urged Routt County in an editorial Sept. 24 to get in front of the proliferation of cell towers with a master plan that identifies desirable places to locate new towers in our mountain valley as well as opportunities for companies to co-locate on existing towers.
Now, it appears there's a need for a work session among staff, the Board of Commissioners and Planning Commission members to smooth out the bumps in the road to improved telecommunications in the Yampa Valley.