Tall, noisy W/J cell tower staying put | AspenTimes.com

Tall, noisy W/J cell tower staying put

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

PITKIN COUNTY ” Even though it violates a set of conditions imposed by Pitkin County commissioners, including a height restriction of 40 feet, a controversial cell phone tower in the heart of an employee housing project will be staying where it is, as it is.

But, thanks to the commissioners, it will soon sport some new “camouflage” branches to make it look more like a tree, and a mound of dirt to disguise the metal box that encloses the concrete base that supports the tower.

And if it ever is approved for replacement, whether for maintenance or other reasons, the new tower will adhere to the county’s height restrictions, which is one of the violations that brought the tower to the commissioners’ attention in the first place.

The tower, owned by a rather mysterious limited liability company called Wireless Capital, was built three years ago in the middle of the Upper Bullwinkle Circle neighborhood of the W/J Ranch affordable housing subdivision.

Called a “Spruce Stealth Tower,” it is designed to look like a tree, with branches sprouting pine needles and a brown, mottled surface on the “trunk,” to hide its true function to anybody not standing close to it.

Last year, a W/J resident reported that the tower was too tall, its machinery too noisy and that a nearby earthen berm intended to hide the tower’s “equipment building” was not finished to the county’s specifications.

“We, the members of the W/J Metro District are deeply opposed to not only the height of the Verizon/T-Mobile cell tower, but the whole installation,” declared a letter to the Board of County Commissioners. “Our community is for families and individuals to live, work and play ” it’s not a place for a commercial installation. We’d like the cell tower moved” because “it’s too close to our homes … it’s ugly [and it] it violates basic land use code height.”

The W/J homeowners’ position was endorsed by the Woody Creek Caucus.

And, after county code enforcement officer Carrington Brown investigated, he told commissioners on May 28, he found that a fan installed inside the equipment building was noisier than permitted by the county’s codes; that the berm was, in fact, not up to the county’s specifications; and that the tower was, in fact. 43.7 feet tall from the ground to the top of its highest antenna.

But attorney Rhonda Basil, representing the Lowe W/J LLC that developed the W/J, trotted out an array of technical data at the commissioners’ meeting to support her contention that, as designed and approved by the county, the tower was permitted to be up to 48 feet tall, despite a 2004 county resolution stating it could be no taller than 40 feet.

“We on the county staff believe the case is perfectly clear,” said Brown, responding to Basil’s presentation, arguing that the county needs to enforce its restrictions.

Commissioners Michael Owsley and Dorothea Farris seemed, at one point, to be leaning toward removal of the tower as punishment for building it too tall.

“What’s the point of having conditions of approval if … they go ahead and do what they want to anyway?” asked Farris. “It’s offensive to me.”

But in the end, commissioners voted to permit it to stand, after Jim De Francia, president of Lowe W/J, promised his company would fix the berm according to the county’s standards, add fake pine boughs to the lower reaches of the tower to enhance its “camouflage,” and pile some dirt around the base of the tower to hide the metal casement there. In addition, the cooling/exhaust fan is to stay off or, if it is needed, to be replaced by a fan that meets the county’s noise standards.

De Francia also pledged financial support for the homeowners association to take care of maintenance of the tower, which is to include cleanup of falling debris as the tower’s “branches” disintegrate over time.

The commissioners concluded that, even if they went through the expense and trouble of finding Wireless Capital, a California partnership, it would lead to a protracted court fight that might go nowhere.

“So, it comes down to, the tower is there, and I know we need cell phone service in that area,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper, after calling for explicit language on the record stating that if the tower ever is approved for replacement for any reason, it will be built according to the county’s specifications.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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