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Pitco hangs up on cell towers

Jeremy Heiman

Cellular telephone reception in Aspen isn’t going to get any better in the near future.

A proposal to place a series of cellular telephone antennas on the Smuggler Mine property was denied by the Pitkin County Commissioners in a unanimous vote Wednesday evening.

The commissioners, tuned in to a room full of citizens opposed to the towers, cited the structures’ incompatibility with the historic mine, though the mine site, owned by local corporation Wright and Preusch Mining LTD, is anything but tidy. The Smuggler Mine dates from 1879 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was the success of the mine which led to the founding of Aspen and was the town’s first claim to fame.

S.B.A., Inc. applied for permission to place six microwave antennas on three laminated wooden poles, two 42 feet high and one 33 feet high. The antennas would measure 4 by 1 feet and would be 3 to 6 inches deep. They would be visible from such vantage points as Clark’s Market as well as nearby neighborhoods.

Barbara Norgren, who served as a historic consultant to the city of Aspen in 1986 and helped get several Aspen area sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, recommended against the towers in a letter.

“The historic setting of Smuggler should be protected against modern intrusions,” Norgren wrote. The county’s planning and zoning board also submitted a negative recommendation.

A representative for S.B.A. told the commissioners her company had considered a less visible site on property higher on the mountain, but, due to the nature of cellular technology, that site proved to be too high above town to work properly. Other sites, she said, are also too high, might require construction of a road or might present a silhouette of the antennas on the skyline.

She said the health risks presented by radiation from the tower are minimal and would meet Federal Communications Commission standards. S.B.A. worked to minimize the visual impacts of the array by designing it with shorter poles and cutting back the number of antennas.

“We’ve whittled this down to make it the least impactive site possible,” she said.

David Kennard of Harrison Wireless testified that the cellular antenna site in downtown Aspen is at capacity, and the Smuggler site could help to improve local service in two ways. It would relieve the load on the downtown site, and it would improve reception to the west, because transmissions would not be blocked either by Shadow Mountain or Red Butte.

Though the S.B.A. representative presented the commissioners with seven pages of signatures in support of the installation, Commissioner Patti Clapper noted that most of the signers, though area residents, were not close neighbors to the mine. And most of the opposition came from the neighborhood.

Gerald Wendell, who lives very near the Smuggler Mine, quoted comments from real estate agents stating that presence of the towers would reduce property values. He noted that the towers would be an unpleasant sight to hikers headed up Smuggler Road. Wendell also voiced objections on historic grounds.

“What message are we sending to this community when we say we’re going to desecrate our most historic site?” he asked.

Timothy Marquand, who said he grew up in Aspen and first toured Smuggler Mine in 1950, told the commissioners the antenna array is not appropriate.

“I’m not opposed to progress,” Marquand said. “But I’m not convinced cellular phones in Aspen represent progress.”

Kim Popish, who with her husband and baby lives about 450 feet from the proposed location of the towers, told the commissioners she had done some quick Internet research on the radiation danger presented by cellular antennas. After looking at information from federal agencies and independent organizations, she concluded that each source admits the danger is unknown.

But Gary Wright, a partner in the company that owns the mine, told the commissioners the historic nature of the mine is a concern of his, too, and the towers wouldn’t be a problem.

“I would never, with the commitment I feel to that property, do anything that would jeopardize the historic value of it,” he said.


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