Our View: Time to get proactive on cell towers
September 24, 2013
Last week's rejection by the Routt County Planning Commission of Union Wireless' plan to locate a new telecommunications tower on private property in the midst of the Big Valley Ranch and Hilton Gulch residential subdivisions suggests that county officials might need to get out in front of the proliferation of new cell towers.
We say that not because we view new cellular towers as necessarily evil. Instead, we think of increased telecommunications capacity as being vital to our economic, educational, health care and governmental institutions. And we recognize Union Wireless as a company that has done a great deal to connect people living and working in the lightly populated areas of western Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
It was Union that brought a solar-powered cell site on wheels last summer to a wildfire just across the Routt County line in Carbon County, Wyo., to help fire crews coordinate their efforts.
Last week's hearing drew an audience of about 40 people, the majority of them strongly opposed to the plan that originally would have located an 80-foot tower in the middle of residents' cherished views of aspen trees and mountainsides. When a Union Wireless representative announced the proposed height of the tower had been trimmed to 55 feet and its design had been changed from a lattice style tower to a less obtrusive monopole, he didn't dent the opposition. Instead, the neighborhood took umbrage at the plans being changed at the 11th hour.
Union spokesman Jim Malone told the Planning Commission his company needed the location in order to get a line of sight to a microwave dish on Walton Peak used to backhaul calls to a central location. He said the site was "perfect" for his company's needs. Unfortunately, residents of the two neighborhoods found it perfectly awful.
It would be easy to apply the term "NIMBY" to people who object to new infrastructure that intrudes on their views. But if we resided in their neighborhood, we might have reacted the same way.
The rancor at last week's hearing was in contrast to the public hearings through much of 2012 about nine 100-foot cell towers brought through the county permitting process by AT&T/New Cingular Wireless. Those towers, some of them in the proximity of the cell service dead zone of Hayden and the canyon west of Milner, were embraced for the improvements they could bring, even though most of them stand out in the open along well-traveled highways and county roads. The one exception, near Yampa, was moved to satisfy the community.
Unlike the AT&T/Cingular, Union did not offer Planning Commission maps and studies that might have demonstrated that it had searched for alternatives to the Big Valley Ranch/Hilton Gulch site and found none suitable.
One of the strengths of the AT&T/Cingular plan is that the new towers are available for other telecommunications companies to lease space on them. The net result would be to limit the proliferation of new towers. Routt County already incentivizes co-location. Cell providers that place their antennas and dishes on existing towers and buildings are able to go through a simplified administrative approval process that sometimes can be completed within a day.
We are aware that other communities in the western United States, where mountains and canyons complicate the placement of telecommunications equipment, have retained consultants to study their jurisdictions. They have come up with plans to manage and guide the private sector in its choice of tower locations. Larimer County is among them.
And elsewhere, as in Montgomery County, Md., local officials have a special telecommunication review process that guides companies to desirable tower sites.
It's time for Routt County to look into the possibility of taking similar steps.