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Technology’s Towers Invade The Forest

July 19, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

BENZONIA, MI — Of all the emblems of the modern economy now invading rural America — freeways, strip malls, giant subdivisions and the like — none seemed so benign as the electronic cottage. Urban professionals who migrated to the country thought they could phone, fax, roam the internet, and download at will without fear that the new communications gear would disturb the solitude or ruin the scenery.

How naive. Here in heavily forested northwest Michigan, the social and environmental costs of the communications revolution is quickly becoming apparent. A regional wireless phone company has proposed building an immense, 250-foot tower on Benzie County’s most prominent timber-cloaked summit. The tower is 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.

Benzie County, however, has 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 the company’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.

In almost every way, PCS towers are the newest testimonials to the ease with which Federal policy makers are entranced by the power of money and technology. Perhaps not since the advent of nuclear power in the 1950s and 1960s has Washington felt so obliged to take a new industrial sector under its wing. And now, as then, local governments got kicked in the teeth.

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 flexibility, innovation, competition, and investment, the law set the stage for federal auctions of the radio spectrum that netted billions of dollars from providers. 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 Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, New Mexico, Washington state and Wisconsin have all ruled against local governments seeking to deny permits for PCS towers.

The Act also makes it difficult, and in many cases impossible, 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, 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. Some 300 other communities have now established moratoriums. 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 five or six 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, church steeples, even light poles at high school football fields. But in the country, where there are fewer tall structures, thousands of new communications towers are planned.

Perhaps a dozen such structures, three times as many as exist today, could eventually be sticking out of the rumps of Benzie County’s rolling hills, like the stingers of giant hornets. Hundreds more appear to be coming to the rest of northern Michigan.

Thousands of acres and miles of new access roads will be cut in the forest, giving drivers easy routes to wild areas once reachable only on foot. Hundreds of new culverts will be built. Sand from the culverts typically erodes and damages the region’s trout streams. The towers, painted red and white and draped in red warning lights, are a visual intrusion that will degrade the North Woods experience that has proved to be the foundation of this region’s thriving resource-based economy.

For these reasons, few here are happy about the towers. Meanwhile, the wireless company sued in June to force the county to make a decision.

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; a bid to cut off of local decision making that has never helped the industry it was designed to. Just ask nuclear utilities.

What was done in Washington was just the sort of underhanded politics that Americans have come to loathe. The Telecommunications Act, as a result, has angered citizens and led to court battles. Most of all, it has hurt the wireless industry. In late June, citing a litany of problems, wireless providers notified the FCC they were in danger of defaulting on billions of dollars in government loans for PCS licenses. Among the reasons they cited: delays in gaining local permission to build new communication towers.

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