Last night, the Juneau Assembly sent back to committee its long-awaited ordinance to regulate what cell phone towers look like and where they can be put.
The Assembly had the ordinance slated for final vote but that went awry after what could have been the ordinance’s final public hearing.
SueAnn Randall of North Douglas wore a green hat to the Assembly meeting with a spoon attached to it just above her forehead. On the crown of the hat, there was a stand of trees dwarfed by a wireframe tower pointing to the ceiling. The tower was topped with a little red light.
It’s a dig at the cell phone tower on Spuhn Island, which her home on North Douglas Highway faces.
“Since Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, it has been challenging to find respite from the unrelenting flashing light in my home, my gardens and my bed,” she told the Assembly.
That’s when the light on the Spuhn Island tower first went on. That tower and all other existing towers in Juneau would have been grandfathered in under the ordinance the Assembly considered.
Here’s Mary Irvine, another North Douglas Highway resident who’s been following the ordinance.
“The planning commission talked about, ‘Do we give them 1 year to come into compliance? 3 years? 10 years?’ They really delved into it,” Irvine said. “And then, based on one redrafting of the plan … it comes back and the existing cell towers are simply grandfathered in. They never have to come up to conformance to the standards in this plan. It’s astonishing to me.”
Grandfathering was one of several issues that drove the ordinance back to committee. There were also legal technicalities, industry objections to specific rules for being overly broad, and wordsmithing suggestions to better align language with intent.
Kim Allen, a lawyer representing AT&T, noted a few specific parts of the proposed ordinance that imposed great costs to industry. For example, a requirement to mail notices to all property owners within 3 miles of every proposed tower.
Allen said demand for wireless services was up 50,000 percent since 2006.
“We want to bring that service to your community and we want to do it with as little visual impact as humanely possible,” Allen said. “But we also would like a fair and efficient process to do it.”
There was also objection over a recent change on how to communicate what a proposed tower will look like. The latest version requires before and after photo mockups of a given site from multiple points of view. An earlier version instead required flying a bright balloon at the height of the proposed tower in its location for 72 hours.
Allen said the photo route is easier, more accurate and follows what other Pacific Northwest communities are doing.
Community members asked, why not do both?
After about half an hour of critical public testimony, Assemblyman Jerry Nankervis said it was clear the ordinance wasn’t ready for adoption and needed to go back to committee for more work.
Mayor Merrill Sanford chided the Assembly to be better prepared to make changes in committee and for missing past opportunities to do so.
“So we don’t continue things on forever and ever here,” he said.
City officials have been working on a comprehensive cell phone tower plan on and off since about 2009.