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Unsightly Communications Towers

Lake Country Gazette

October 1, 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. The Michigan State Police also are proposing a new communications network that is supposed to use 181 towers, each up to 475 feet tall. It is not yet clear how many of those are coming to northern Michigan.

NPI and the State Police are just the first of a stream of companies and government agencies that want to build unsightly towers. As such, communications towers represents one of the more significant land use issues confronting northern Michigan. The problem is that counties and townships have been blocked by both a new federal law, and a new state law, from exerting their full authority to oversee tower construction.

NPI’s 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, and in some cases impossible, to restrict the size, location, appearance, or number of towers under their zoning ordinances.

The federal 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 take action to slow tower construction, as have several Antrim County townships. 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 issued a moratorium last spring, and then approved a new zoning amendment in August that restricts the location and height of new PCS towers.

None of the local government action, though, may be enough to protect communities from the State Police. Urged by police commanders, the state legislature passed a new law that gives local governments just 30 days to review the 50-story towers that the State Police propose to build. When police officials defended the law and their plan in Ada Township a few weeks ago, citizens accused them of being "underhanded and sneaky." Representative Jack Horton, a Republican from Lowell, is proposing legislation to give townships more time.

There are manifest reasons for local governments to be concerned. The new wireless phone technology that NPI is trying to sell 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.

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 many fewer tall structures, hundreds of new communications towers may be needed. They could eventually be sticking out of the rumps of the region’s rolling hills, like the stingers of giant hornets.

The trouble with the State Police towers is not only their numbers, but their size. The one proposed in Ada Township is ten stories higher than the tallest building in nearby Grand Rapids.

In an era when both political parties have declared the end to big government, the Telecommunications Act, and the law supporting the State Police towers are old-fashioned power grabs. There is a lesson here, though for lawmakers, the wireless industry, and the State Police.

By seeking to cut citizens out of important decisions affecting their communities, the federal and state laws are aggravating the public and leading to pitched local battles. Though both laws were designed to speed the development of communications networks, they are having the opposite effect.

Last summer, citing a litany of problems, major wireless providers notified the federal government that they were in danger of defaulting on billions of dollars in government loans for cellular licenses. Among the reasons they cited: delays in gaining permission to build new communication towers. And State Police officials, mindful of the citizen opposition in Ada and other townships, are rethinking how to explain their plan to upend local oversight.

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