The Torrance County commission got an earful Wednesday from Tajique residents who spoke out against a cell tower project in their community—after which the board approved the tower.

It was the first meeting for newly elected commissioners Kevin McCall and new chairman Ryan Schwebach, who along with 2-year board veteran Javier Sanchez, heard the appeal of Gravity Pad Partners LLC after it was denied a Conditional Use Permit by the planning and zoning board.

Gravity Pad Partners is contracted to ATT to provide a 199-foot communications tower capable of communicating with another tower under construction in the Tijeras area to provide coverage to a large area in rural Torrance County.

Gravity Pad owner, Sean Milks testified in a quasi-judicial hearing that after having evaluated several other sites, they found the location in Tajique to be a “perfect site,” uniquely satisfying the need for electrical power and fiber-optic cable and required propagation studies by ATT and FirstNet.

FirstNet is an authority within the Department of Commerce created in 2012 to develop, build and operate a broadband network for first responders. This project would be part of that network.

Milks said that the tower could be used by Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint if they choose. 911 service would also be provided.

Milks said he met with Tajique Land Grant representatives in December, unsuccessfully trying to reach an agreement.

Public questions were invited by the chairman. Several residents of Tajique asked why the tower had to be located on that site. Milks responded by stating its appropriate characteristics and uniqueness.

Public comment was invited by the chairman. Several residents of Tajique Land Grant spoke against the tower, citing its obtrusiveness, being within 700 feet of their community center.

McCall asked Steven Guetschow, Torrance County Planning & Zoning coordinator, to speak about the “P&Z” board’s denial of the original application asking for “the facts, the truth behind the denial.”

Guetschow replied that the information was in the minutes of the meeting. McCall responded, “I read the minutes and I don’t see the truth, the fact, why the denial was passed.”

“They considered the relevant facts and the opposition in the community,” Guetschow said. “Their vote was based on incompatibility of the location with the community.”

County Manager Belinda Garland explained that FirstNet prioritizes the users of the network, making firefighters and police the top priority, EMT is second priority, then government administration and citizens are at the bottom. In an emergency, service to the bottom tier is discontinued to ensure service to the top tiers.

Garland said that during the Dog Head Fire, firefighters lost communications with some of their crew because there is no service. They were later located and safe.

Schwebach called for a vote. He and McCall voted in favor of the permit while Sanchez voted against it. The appeal was won by Gravity Pad Partners and ATT will move forward toward providing service to the area.

Torrance County Sheriff Martin Rivera told The Independent, “For us, we need the communications, because there’s not enough communications in that area,” explaining, “911 will work with whatever tower is in the area. It doesn’t matter exactly where it is located as long as it covers that area. Also for radio communications. It’s really spotty in that area also. And it doesn’t just affect the town, there’s the campgrounds in the area. This would help with relaying information to us so we don’t walk into a dangerous situation.”