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A Forest of Communication Towers

Community organizing can reduce their number

May 1, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Northern Michigan's ridge tops are sprouting clumps of tall steel communications towers with blinking red lights, driving many residents to distraction.

NPI Wireless, a subsidiary of Noverr Publishing in Traverse City, is completing a network of up to 25 new towers in 13 northwest Michigan counties. The towers -- most of which will be between 199 and 250 feet tall -- support the company's new $35 million wireless telephone network.

The State Police also are planning to build up to 60 new towers in the northern Lower Peninsula as part of a $187 million project to replace the agency's 40-year-old communications network. Many of the towers will be more than 400 feet tall, an agency spokeswoman said.
The towers are the product of new technology and recent laws, passed separately by Congress and the state Legislature, that allow private cellular telephone companies as well as the State Police to largely avoid local zoning authority.

Across Michigan and the nation, citizens objecting to the towers say they are unsightly and disturb the sense of rural peace. "It's like living in a different place," said Ray Bier, a resident of Norwood Township in Charlevoix County, who lives in the shadow of a 320-foot tower built two years ago by Cellular One. "I've lived here for 20 years and all of a sudden out your window goes up this industrial blight with lights. It kind of just changes the whole feel of the area."

In 1996 the White House and Congress teamed up with the wireless industry to pass the federal Telecommunications Act. On the way to passage, industry lobbyists went to work to block the grass roots opposition they were sure would develop over the towers.

The Telecommunications Act contains exceptionally specific provisions that make it illegal for communities to reject new towers. However the law included one loophole that enables communities to decide the height, and to some extent the location, of towers and to issue construction moratoriums so planners can update zoning ordinances.

Communities also can require private tower builders to invest in bonds that cover the cost of tearing down the structures when their useful life ends. Opponents of the towers assert that they soon will be made obsolete by satellites. But cellular telephone companies insist that their towers will be useful for decades.

In northwest Michigan local governments are taking action to do what they can to control the private cellular companies. Peninsula Township north of Traverse City has prohibited towers on its most scenic ridge tops. Benzie County has approved a zoning amendment that restricts the location and height of new towers, and requires the owners of the land to be responsible for dismantling them.

In 1996, as Congress was considering legislation to make it easier to build private communication towers, the Michigan Legislature passed a law that gives the State Police even broader authority to bypass local governments in building new towers. Local governments have just 30 days to review State Police tower applications and propose an alternative site. If the State Police reject the alternative, they can build on the original site.

The State Police are reluctant to disclose the exact number or location of their new towers for "security reasons," but did make public last year their plan to build at least five towers in Leelanau County. That prompted a groundswell of protest from residents, who formed the Leelanau Association for Sensible Towers. In March, with the help of Rep. Michelle McManus (R-Lake Leelanau), the Association persuaded the State Police to reduce that number to two: one outside Empire and another in southeast Elmwood Township.

CONTACTS: Martha L. Black, Leelanau Association for Sensible Towers. Tel. 616-929-9471, fax 616-929- 9476; Mary Levine, State Police. Tel. 517-336-6616, fax 517-336-6222.

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