Assembly drops Spuhn Island cell tower study

The Spuhn Island cell tower has a constant flashing red light at night and a white strobe during the day. (Photo courtesy Jon Lyman)
The Spuhn Island cell tower has a constant flashing red light at night and a white strobe during the day. (Photo courtesy Jon Lyman)

The case of the Spuhn Island cellphone tower is closed.

The Juneau Assembly Monday night called off a search for a solution to the 155-foot tower and the flashing lights that have disturbed area residents for more than a year.

The Assembly in January asked city staff to look for ways to mitigate the visual impact of the cell tower lights. At the time, Deputy City Manager Rob Steedle said there were no options. But when pressed, he found six.

“I was wrong. I should have said that CBJ has no good options,” he told the Assembly Committee of the Whole.

He admitted none of his assumptions had been tested. He called the cost of each option “very rough.”

The price tags range from a high of more than $500,000 to relocate the tower, to a low of $175,000 for a dialogue with the Federal Aviation Administration about less intense lighting. Steedle said that could take ten years and he rated the actual chance of conversation very low.

But that was the type of alternative Assembly members seemed to be looking for when they called for the study. Kate Troll said it clearly is time for conversation.

“Have a discussion with the regulatory agencies or the tower and property owners, realizing we can’t compel them to a solution,” Troll said.  “But maybe out of their desire to be a good neighbor, they would modify the blinking light.”

The Spuhn Island tower is within the airport flight path. It has a flashing red light at the top and two lower, but steady red lights at night; a white strobe flashes throughout the day. The tower was properly permitted in 2012.

Atlas Tower LLC, of Colorado, owns the tower. It sits on land leased from Spuhn Island Development, a Juneau company. Atlas Tower is in the midst of its first five-year lease, with five, five-year renewals remaining. Verizon is the cellphone carrier.

CBJ Community Development Planning Manager Travis Goddard said the flashing red warning light provides significant information to pilots.

“And the purpose of that flashing light is to help them figure out the three-dimensional aspect of that tower and where those lights are,” Goddard said.

Mayor Merrill Sanford said the FAA regulations are clear and the city should just drop its study.

“This isn’t just for Juneau, this is across the nation,” he said.

City staff assigned to the project did not talk to the FAA, the tower company, or property owners. They’d been asked to consider community mediation – getting all the parties in the same room to talk through the issues and possible solutions. In a memo to the Assembly, Steedle said the approach made no sense in the case of the Spuhn Island tower; he doubted Atlas would be interested in coming to the table.

That annoyed Assembly member Jesse Kiehl.

“I have never heard a response to, for instance, a request that the Assembly try and start a conversation, or that management start a conversation, like the one in this memo, which simply says, ‘well, we don’t have a hammer, so there’s no point in having the conversation. There’s no point in inviting them to talk. The tone and the approach remain an issue of great concern for me.”

For more than a year, Gene and Sue Ann Randall have been asking the city to help broker a solution. Their North Douglas home faces the flashing tower. They were in Assembly chambers for Monday’s discussion and asked to make a statement, but public testimony is never taken at Committee of the Whole meetings.

After the meeting, Randall said Steedle’s options were shortsighted.

“He suggests that community mediation would be of no value, and this is just shameful to dismiss the value of open discussion on an issue that affects the community this much,” Randall said.

While the case of the Spuhn Island cell tower seems to be closed, the city is in the midst of developing a master plan to regulate the placement, design and permitting process of future  towers. That process promises neighborhood meetings and public hearings before the plan is adopted.

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