Cell phone tower irks neighbors

A cell phone tower going in on Raven Road has some neighbors upset, after an earlier attempt was denied by Bernalillo County.

What makes this case different, according to Enrico Gradi, director of planning and development services for the county, is that the rural agricultural zoning in the area allows a cell phone tower if it is concealed as a “permissive use.”

Conditions for a concealed cell phone tower include that it be “architecturally integrated with existing buildings, structures and landscaping, including height, color, style, massing, placement, design, and shape,” the ordinance says. The ordinance also says a concealed wireless telecommunication facility must be “located on existing vertical infrastructure, such as utility poles or public utility structures, if possible.”

Nearby resident Katharine Beebe was the only opponent of the project who would go on the record with The Independent about concerns. “Aesthetics—concealment—are a detail compared to the serious issue of proven health risks,” Beebe wrote in an email. “Worldwide, hundreds of scientists recognize the risks. Landowners who cut lucrative deals for personal gain, the county, and the industry all profit by what the public doesn’t know.”

The county ordinance does speak to health risks, in a section called Health Issues: “Every wireless telecommunications facility shall meet the regulations of the Federal Communications Commission regarding physical and electromagnetic interference.”

Beebe described “vitriol” in a social media forum called NextDoor about the project, which leaves some neighbors feeling that their right to protest has been trampled on.

But Gradi said the zoning in the area, including the language about telecommunications towers, has been in place since 1999.

When property owner Bob Foster tried to move the ham radio tower on his property in 2007, and add a cell phone tower, he was denied by the county’s planning and zoning department and the county commission.

“The previous case was different because the applicant was attempting to replace and relocate the 144-foot guyed Ham Radio Antenna and connect to an un-camouflaged Wireless Telecommunication Facility … onto it for use both as a Ham Radio Antenna and a Wireless Facility,” Gradi wrote in an email to The Independent. “In that case, the proposal was required to go to a public hearing because the proposed WTC was not concealed, not camouflaged, and not architecturally integrated into the site or property and it was 144 feet tall.”

Gradi said federal law governs telecommunication towers, as well, and supercedes county ordinances. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 says, “No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide an interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.”

The Independent asked for comments on Facebook, with the response being uniformly in favor of the tower, with people citing public safety issues and a desire for their cell phones to work in the Raven Road area.

“Everyone wants their cell phone to work when they need them, but many don’t want to see a cell tower but they “put up” with hundreds of thousands of telephone and electric power poles that are everywhere,” wrote Mark Emery.

“Cell service and internet access? Bring it,” wrote William Bazinet.

“Can’t wait for the tower to go hot,” John Lyall commented.

“What the county has done sounds like a reversal of what they’re said to have promised residents in 2007,” Beebe wrote. “It also suggests the county was aware that residents were not really informed of the real issues regarding cell tower placement—and they just ran with that. A public hearing would have informed residents. But in favor of the industry, protest has been silenced—apparently, written into the zoning.”

“The zoning never changed in that area [since 1999],” Gradi said, adding, “If [the applicant meets] the criteria in the zoning code for that zone, and the criteria for wireless communication towers, they can move forward.”

Gradi said he understands that people feel passionate about cell phone towers, but added that the county can’t pick and choose which applications go forward if its criteria have been met. “It comes in as a building permit,” he explained. “Zoning looks at it, and makes a determination if it meets the zoning. … If someone came in proposing something not concealed, it would be a public hearing and would require a special use permit.”

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