Telecommunications Towers Make Waves
Towns across the country are balking at construction of unsightly towers for new personal communication services.
The small, woodsy town of Medina, Wash., is the last place anyone might envision an anti-technology movement to emerge.
Medina is home to some of Microsoft Corp.'s top executives, including its chairman, Bill Gates, who lives in a $53 million dream house controlled by 50 computer systems.
Yet last month the picturesque Seattle suburb won the second round in a legal battle waged by its wealthy residents to restrict the growth of telecommunications towers within town limits.
Medina is one of more than 200 US communities to have put the brakes on tower construction during the past year.
In most cases, concern is over a tower's visual impact, whether it be a short flagpole or a 250-foot-high steel latticework. The towers are key to the electronic infrastructure necessary to build a new generation of cellular telephone service called personal communication services, or PCS.
Voice mail, paging, teleconferencing, call waiting and the Internet are available to those with a PCS pocket phone. Since PCS operates via a digital frequency, communication is crisper and clearer.
But because PCS signals flow on a higher frequency than cell phones, their range is shorter, requiring more antennas grouped closer together. Cellular phone towers can be placed as far as 30 miles apart, while the maximum distance between PCS towers is six to eight miles.
A growing market
Already, more than 2 million Americans subscribe to PCS services, according to Paul Kagan Associates, a market research firm. But the PCS industry estimates that more than 100,000 antenna sites will be needed before most Americans fall within a PCS "footprint."
In spring 1996, four PCS carriers approached Medina officials with plans to locate dozens of towers within city limits. The town is a stone's throw from Highway 520, a route to Seattle for thousands of commuters.
The news didn't go over well with Medina's citizens or its mayor at the time, Dewey Taylor. "We were on the brink of becoming a community where your coffee would never get cold," Mr. Taylor jokes. But no one was laugh- ing when Medina officials enacted a six-month moratorium on all tower permits, a move Sprint PCS challenged in federal court.
Rosalind Allen, deputy chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, says she understands Medina's action. "A lot of computer-industry executives pay big bucks to live in Medina and want to keep their community the way it is."
But, says Ms. Allen, "A number of citizens' groups have had a knee-jerk reaction to these towers. People don't realize that to be an effective competitor with this new technology, you have to roll out service rapidly."
Just how fast is too fast? Congress tried to clear the way for PCS technology to enter the marketplace through the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires local governments to act on a carrier's application for antenna sites "within a reasonable period of time." Municipalities can't block construction of new telecommunications towers but can regulate where they're built.
Like Medina, small towns from southern Arizona to northern New England have used moratoriums to buy time to consider ways of minimizing a tower's visual impact. Increasingly, mayors and city managers insist such a "timeout" is essential.
During Medina's moratorium, for example, the city hired a telecommunications consultant and heard testimony from experts on the health impact of radio frequencies. As a result, the city crafted an ordinance designating special areas for construction, as well as setback requirements and height limitations. Medina city officials also suggested alternative siting, like the Sprint PCS antenna recently installed atop a light pole in a church parking lot.
But companies like Sprint PCS, MCI Wireless, and AT&T argue they can't afford to wait long. Medina's moratorium put Sprint PCS at a competitive disadvantage, costing it $2 million a month in lost revenue, says the company. At the same time, telecommunications companies are paying off huge debts they ran up to purchase PCS frequencies in the first place. The FCC auctions in 1994 brought in $23 billion to the federal government.
What constitutes a "reasonable period of time" is a hotly debated issue. "We think three months is sufficient," says Tim Ayers, vice president for communications at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry of America (CTIA).
But last year a federal district judge in Seattle upheld Medina's six-month moratorium on issuing siting permits. The decision established a precedent other towns pointed to.
Efforts to construct new PCS networks have been far easier in major cities, where carriers can place antennas on existing structures like water towers, church steeples, and skyscrapers.
But in rustic resort areas like Benzie County in northwest Michigan, residents and local officials are concerned not only about the towers' potential negative impact on real estate values, but also on who will dismantle a tower should its owner go bust or the technology becomes obsolete.
It may be the smallest county in the state, but Benzie possesses some of Michigan's most scenic real estate. Benzie's undulating hills and valleys are dotted with pristine lakes and lush forests of maple, pine, and oak.
"Nobody in Benzie County is saying, 'Don't build the towers,' " says Keith Schneider, executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, an economic and environmental-policy research group in Benzonia, Mich. But, he adds, people here understand that citizens and local governments ought to have oversight over their size, number, and location.
Earlier this year, NPI Wireless applied for a permit to construct a 250-foot antenna tower on Indian Hill - one of the most picturesque ridge tops in the county. The tower's height would trigger FAA "visibility guidelines," mandating flashing lights and striped markings. Local zoning officials responded with a ban on the tower, followed by a four-month moratorium on new sitings.
Like their counterparts in Medina, Benzie County officials used the cooling-off period to craft an ordinance that streamlines the approval process for carriers in return for fewer towers at lower heights.
The Benzie County ordinance also includes provisions about tower removal. If a tower's "useful life" comes to an end - that is, new technology replaces need for it - responsibility for removing it rests with the property owner.
Similar rules went into effect in other nearby counties where NPI Wireless is eager to do business. The carrier's original plan called for 60 towers in 13 counties. Now it plans to build only about 20 towers, says general manager Kevin Flynn. "We came to a reasonable compromise. We want to do what we can to preserve the beauty of this area. We live here too."
Mr. Schneider contends that agreements between Benzie and other counties with NPI Wireless might have been forged with less rancor had the 1996 Telecommunications Act not "superseded" authority of local governments. "Debate at the grass-roots level is messy," he says, "but it's a vital part of the democratic process."
The former mayor of Medina agrees. "Congress took a one-sided view of the process when they dictated the acquiescence of local communities in obliging telecommunications companies," says Taylor. "The decisionmaking privileges we all believe ourselves to enjoy ... were taken away from us. There's a good deal of resentment over that fact."
Meanwhile, the industry has filed a petition with the FCC asking for a 90-day limit on tower moratoriums. "I'm trying to be optimistic," says the CTIA's Ayers, noting that the petition was filed eight months ago. "The irony is that the longer we wait for an FCC ruling, the less need there is for moratoriums to study tower siting."