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Pitkin County bans cell towers for CMC

Allyn Harvey

Cellular telephone provider Sprint PCS may be the first victim in what appears to be a de facto moratorium on new cell towers in Pitkin County.

The county commissioners voted 3-1 yesterday to deny the company’s application to mount six cellular telephone antennas at the new Colorado Mountain College building across Highway 82 from the airport.

The company wanted to erect the antennas flush against the walls on three sides of the building, which is located between the North 40 neighborhood and the county bus barn.

The hour-long hearing on the application featured the usual concerns from neighbors about health, and the usual worries from the cell phone company representatives about customer service. But it also featured a vow by Commissioner Dorothea Farris to deny all towers until a master plan identifying appropriate locations is complete.

Farris’ reluctance to approve any towers for the time being became apparent when she moved to deny the application based on the fact that the county was about to begin the master plan process.

But after County Attorney John Ely said her basis for the motion was illegal, Farris withdrew it and commented, “Fine, they can bring them [cell tower applications] to us and we’ll deny them, if that’s the way we have to do it.”

County Commissioner Jack Hatfield was concerned with the frequency of applications and the lack of a policy for handling them. “This is the third cell tower application I’ve seen, and I haven’t been here three months,” he said.

He and Patti Clapper both said they thought it was inappropriate to approve the Sprint PCS application until a master plan is in place. Work on the master plan, which will identify appropriate sites for cell towers and other communications equipment, has yet to begin, although County Manager Hilary Smith said it is likely to start soon.

Sprint PCS’s application was eventually denied on a motion by Hatfield that was based on the premise that cell towers are inconsistent with the existing zoning at the college.

“It’s a de facto moratorium they just enacted in there,” said James Kurtz-Phelan, an attorney representing Sprint PCS.

Kurtz-Phelan said the company has sued communities in the past after being denied an application to put up a cell tower, but he wouldn’t speculate about the next move in this case.

Sprint PCS spokeswoman Jackie Griffin-Francis expressed dismay with the denial, because she thought the company’s application met all the requirements in the code. “I think it’s unfair that we met all their requirements and were denied anyway,” she said.

Kurtz-Phelan pointed out that no one had demonstrated that there would be any adverse effects on the neighborhood. “I think we’ve met your regulations to a T,” he said.

Commissioner Ireland pointed out that uses that require special review are not guaranteed, regardless of how well they comply with the code. “Most of our regulations do not allow use by right,” he said.

Ireland was the lone vote against the denial. He thought the county should grant the company a one-year permit for the towers, with the condition that they be removed if the master plan identifies the college as an inappropriate site for cell towers.

The application met stiff resistance from residents of the North 40, who made it clear they were not comfortable with a cellular antenna beaming signals through their bedrooms.

“Our initial reaction was }Why would we support this?’ ” the North 40 Homeowners Association wrote in a letter to the commissioners. “We see no benefits and could possibly be harmed by long-term radiation exposure or other potential ill effects we are not even aware of yet.”

Those health concerns were given a sympathetic ear by all four commissioners, even though they are prohibited from using health as an issue during their deliberations.

Kurtz-Phelan stoked a bit of ire in all four commissioners when he reminded them of the law. “The Telecommunications Act of 1996 does not permit local officials to use health concerns in deciding about the location of cell towers,” he said.

“The neighborhood has a right to be concerned,” Clapper said with a sharp tone. “They have that right.”

“We’re all aware of that law,” Ireland said. “You don’t need to recite it to us.”

“I come from a time when we heard about DDT and PCB and how safe they were, only to find out later that they weren’t so safe,” Farris said.

After denying the Sprint PCS application, the commissioners had several more hours of hearings on their schedule and were unavailable to say whether the decision marks the beginning of a moratorium.

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