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Better Telecom Service is Fine, but Be Judicious with Towers

August 3, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The signature landmarks of Michigan’s North Woods are not only the sparkling inland lakes, the towering sand dunes, 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, northern Michigan’s most prominent summits are likely to be decorated by more than just trees. NPI Wireless Inc., a subsidiary of Noverr Publishing of Traverse City, has proposed building 60 towers, each 200 to 250 feet tall, as part of $35 million wireless phone network the company wants to install in 13 northwest Michigan counties.

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 represent one of the more significant land use issues confronting 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, and in some cases impossible, for communities to restrict the size, location, appearance, or number of towers under their zoning ordinances.

The law, however, includes one loophole. Congress directed communities to speed review of new tower applications. This provision, though, was ambiguous enough 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.

In northern Michigan, local governments are taking advantage. Emmet County has indicated it will soon pass a moratorium. Benzie County approved a moratorium in June, joining the roughly 300 communities around the country in taking such action. The industry has appealed the practice to the Federal Communications Commission, which is expected to issue a ruling this summer.

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 downstate cities, most PCS equipment will be hung on existing communications towers, or fixed to tall buildings, and church steeples. In Livonia, PCS antennas were hung on the light poles at the high school football field. But in northern Michigan, where there are fewer tall structures, hundreds of new communications towers may be needed. Hundreds of towers could eventually be sticking out of the rumps of the region’s 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 the wireless industry’s aggressive move, local governments are rushing to prepare new zoning provisions. Peninsula Township, north of Traverse City, will prohibit towers on its most scenic ridge tops, which overlook the brilliant blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay. Benzie County’s zoning proposal includes incentives to limit the height of new towers by exempting those under 70 feet from costly and time-consuming local review.

Many of the new zoning plans also include other incentives designed to limit the number of towers. One popular provision requires companies to look for space on existing towers or other tall structures before applying for a new tower permit. Another exempts from review towers built in existing commercial and industrial zones. Several plans also propose to levy bonds on owners to cover the costs of dismantling the tower when its useful life ends.

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 FCC 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.A version of this article was published in the Detroit Free Press, Sunday, August 3, 1997

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