For the second Hood River County Planning Commission hearing in a row, the meeting room of the County Business Administration Building was standing-room-only the night of Oct. 23.
Also for the second public hearing in a row, no final judgment was made by the planning commission on the issue at hand.
The public showed up in full force at the hearing to see whether commissioners would uphold or reverse a decision Planning Director Mike Benedict made this summer to deny an application for the construction of a 165-foot cellphone tower on private land located on the west side of town. Well over 60 people attended the hearing — a slight uptick from the Barrett Park hearing that came before the planning commission two weeks prior.
Commissioners were prepared to deliberate on the cell tower and possibly make a decision, but counsel for ATC, Kelly Hossaini, requested that the record remain open for seven days after the conclusion of the hearing in order to respond to new testimony that was provided that evening. The commission honored the request, which resulted in the deliberation date getting pushed back to Nov. 13.
Unlike the Barrett Park hearing, testimony given during the cell tower hearing was overwhelmingly negative — not surprising considering the volume of condemnatory letters the proposal received at the conclusion of its public comment period late last year. After the permit was denied this summer due to the height of the tower, ATC appealed the decision and reduced the structure’s height from 165 feet to 140 feet.
If built, the tower would be located near the end of Rocky Road, just a stone’s throw from the Westside Community Trail. The land would be leased from Jeff Blackman and Erin Burnham, who own the parcel at 3970 Fairview Drive. AT&T would be the primary wireless carrier to utilize the tower, with the potential for more carriers to be added.
Those who spoke against the tower at last week’s public hearing scoffed at ATC’s offering of a 25-foot reduction in height, saying the structure, which is to be disguised as a pine tree, would still impede the views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams for local property owners as well as those using the WCT.
Kristin Gerde, who lives at the end of Rocky Road, said the proposed height reduction would do nothing to make the tower more compatible to its surroundings. She cited the planning department’s staff report as evidence, which once again recommended denial of the cell tower, even with the reduction in height.
“Now (the tower is) only two-and-a-half times the size of the nearest pine, which by the way is 300 feet away and three-and-a-half times as all the deciduous trees in the vicinity,” an impassioned Gerde said. “What a ludicrous and offensive concession to compatibility. This tower does not belong in this location, period.”
Gerde added that her 5-acre property “would be in the literal shadow of the tower” for a period of time every day and would cause her to lose her view of Mount Hood. She displayed an image to commissioners of an orange weather balloon floating near the cell tower site, which she said was up 140 feet in the air. Gerde then showed another image of the site with the cell tower superimposed, looking to the north, with Mount Adams blotted out by the structure.
“I have no doubt our five acres would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars less with a mutant, 140-foot fake pine looming over it,” Gerde said.
Jeff Hunter, a former realtor in the Hood River Valley, agreed that it would drive down property values, and read signed letters from three local realtors confirming this would occur if the tower were approved.
Another issue that arose during the meeting was whether ATC had the proper easements to build the tower. Isa Taylor, lawyer for Melanie and Terry Finstad, who own property adjacent to the Blackman property, said ATC’s application should be considered “incomplete” because the easement across the Finstads’ land is only good for travel purposes, not for development.
“It is clear ATC has proposed an access road through the Finstad property and it is clear they do not have the Finstads’ approval to do so,” Taylor explained.
Others brought up concerns related to possible health effects generated by tower radio frequencies, ice falling from the structure in wintertime, noise produced by the tower’s diesel generators, dangers to air traffic, and the potential collapse of the tower.
A popular argument against the tower was claims that it would improve coverage in the valley, particularly to the south. Several people testified that they were current AT&T customers and had no problems with their service. Local resident Julia Gonzalez said she has not had a landline in 10 years because her AT&T cell reception is “so superb.”
Ken Seymour, a radio frequency expert for AT&T, explained cell customers were growing in the valley and that the tower site was selected to help alleviate some of the burden placed on other towers in the Gorge.
“If we get too far outside the geographic area, we won’t offload what we need to offload,” Seymour said and cautioned that not constructing the tower could cause issues in the future, particularly during high-usage times, such as a natural disaster. He also said the tower was “way below” the maximum Federal Communications Commission thresholds for radio frequency exposure.
Steven Topp added that according to the Telecommunications Act (TCA), health concerns are not allowed to be considered by the planning commission when deliberating on a cell tower application. He assured the public that if the cell tower did collapse, it was designed to fall in on itself in sections and would not endanger users using the WCT.
Hossaini defended the design of the tower and told commissioners that their code “does not require the tower to be invisible” and believed that AT&T showed good faith with the 25-foot reduction in the tower’s height.
“This is a compromise for AT&T, but a compromise AT&T was willing to make,” Hossaini noted.
Planning commissioners directed many questions toward the project proponents at the end of the meeting, particularly about the feasibility of other sites, but Planning Commission Chair Bob Schuppe put the kibosh on that one.
“You’re not going to get us to go there tonight,” he said to the three cell tower proponents in the room. “We’re not in the business of suggesting cell tower locations. That is your job.”
The meeting on the cell tower will be Wednesday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. at the County Business Administration Building at 601 State St., Hood River. No new testimony will be accepted at that time.