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Unsightly Communications Towers

- A Result of a ‘96 Law

July 23, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Benzie County Record Patriot, July 23, 1997

The signature landmarks of Benzie County are not only the sparkling inland lakes, the uncrowded beaches, and the clean rivers. They also are the timber-cloaked hills that give depth to a natural geography that is the foundation of a thriving resource-based economy.

Soon, however, Benzie’s most prominent summits are likely to be decorated by more than just trees. NPI Wireless Inc., a subsidiary of Noverr Publishing, is planning to build an immense communications tower near Eden Hill Road between Crystal and Platte Lakes. It is part of a $35 million wireless phone network the company wants to install in 13 Northwest Michigan counties that may require 59 more 200 to 250-foot towers.

NPI is just the first of a stream of wireless phone companies that are likely to build towers to compete for a share of the region’s growing market. As such, communications towers represents one of the more significant land use issues confronting Benzie County and the rest of northern Michigan. The problem is that counties and townships have been blocked by a new federal law from exerting their full authority to oversee tower construction.

The communications towers are designed to carry an array of antennas and receivers for so-called personal communications services (PCS), the new wireless technology that its proponents say is so superior it will displace existing cellular phones. At least that is what Washington and the wireless industry are counting on.

In 1996, the White House and Congress teamed up with the wireless industry to pass the Telecommunications Act. Ballyhooed as the definitive statement of Washington’s new desire to promote innovation, competition, and investment, the law set the stage for federal auctions of new areas of the radio spectrum that netted the government billions of dollars. The number of wireless phones in homes, businesses, and vehicles is predicted to reach 100 million in a decade, more than twice as many as today.

But on the way to passage, wireless industry lobbyists quietly went to work to block the grass roots opposition they were sure would develop over unsightly PCS towers. They convinced Congress to write new rules that drastically limit the traditional authority of local governments to oversee uses of land.

The Telecommunications Act contains exceptionally specific provisions that make it illegal for communities to reject new towers. U.S. district judges in six states have ruled against local governments seeking to deny permits for PCS towers.

The Act also makes it difficult for communities to restrict the size, location, appearance, or number of towers under their zoning ordinances.

Lastly, Congress directed communities to speed review of new tower applications. This provision was ambiguous enough, though, to invite a successful challenge. In 1996, a Federal District Judge in Washington state ruled that it was legal for the city of Medina to institute a temporary moratorium to give planners time to update the zoning ordinance.

A half dozen communities in northern Michigan, including Benzie County, have joined the more than 300 other communities around the country in establishing moratoriums. Benzie also went a step further in May when the Zoning Board of Appeals rejected NPI’s tower plan. The company sued, asserting that it had the legal right under county zoning to build its tower, and that the Telecommunications Act barred Benzie from taking any action that delayed installation. Settlement negotiations are in progress.

There are manifest reasons for local governments to want more time. PCS technology uses an extremely high frequency portion of the radio spectrum. As a result, signals don’t travel very far and PCS antennas generally must be within a few miles of each other. That means 120,000 new antennas will be needed in America to hook up PCS systems, say industry experts.

In cities, most PCS equipment will be hung on existing communications towers, or fixed to tall buildings, and church steeples. But in northern Michigan, where there are many fewer tall structures, hundreds of new communications towers may be needed. In Benzie County perhaps a dozen such structures, three times as many as exist today, could eventually be sticking out of the rumps of the rolling hills, like the stingers of giant hornets.

The social and environmental costs of the wireless development are likely to be extensive. Forest and fields will be cleared and miles of new access roads will be cut to make way for the towers. All the new roads will give four-wheel drive vehicles even more routes to natural areas once reachable only on foot. The towers, painted red and white, and draped in bright strobes and red warning lights, also are a visual intrusion.

Prompted by NPI’s push, Benzie County is preparing new zoning provisions that seek to limit the height of new towers by exempting those under 70 feet from local review. The proposal subjects taller towers to more extensive and lengthy reviews.

The zoning plan also includes incentives designed to limit the number of towers. One requires companies to look for space on existing towers or other tall structures before applying for a new tower permit. A second exempts from review companies who build in existing commercial and industrial zones and commit to sharing space on their towers.

The county also proposes levying a bond on owners to cover the costs of dismantlement and removal when the tower’s useful life ends.

The proposed ordinance, which is being prepared by Don Swartz, the County Zoning Administrator, will be reviewed by a citizens committee this month before being open to public comment in August. It is likely to be voted on by the County Commission in September.

In an era when leaders of both parties have declared the end to big government, the Telecommunications Act is an old-fashioned abrogation of power. There is a lesson here for lawmakers and industry.

By seeking to cut citizens out of important decisions affecting their communities, the communications act aggravated the public and led to pitched local battles. Hurt most by the skirmishes: the wireless industry. In late June, citing a litany of problems, major wireless providers notified the Federal Communications Commission that they were in danger of defaulting on billions of dollars in government loans for PCS licenses. Among the reasons they cited: delays in gaining permission to build new communication towers.

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