Borough cell tower plan gets public treatment

A plan still in the draft stage would put more restrictions on cellphone companies when applying for and building cell towers in the City and Borough of Juneau.

Because of a recent upcropping of cellphone towers in the city, including the controversial Spuhn Island tower, the city decided to expedite work on the Wireless Telecommunications Master Plan.

“Spuhn Island has kind of come to a boil,” so the assembly decided “we need to stop letting this sit on the backburner,” city planning manager Travis Goddard told the Empire.

Seven new towers have gone up in the city since early-2012, and city leaders have talked about the master plan since 2009, Goddard said.

The plan would regulate the height and look of the cell towers, as well as where they can be placed. Through the plan, every cell tower would need a conditional use permit before it could be built — a process that requires a public hearing.

“We want to create a single process that works every time, no matter what the use is,” Goddard said of the new plan.

Before a draft of the master plan came out in early March, “theoretically we didn’t have any regulations” on tall cell towers, Goddard said. That left the Planning Commission to be “bullied” by cellphone companies, he added.

“Having an ordinance would allow the Planning Commission to bully them and say, ‘You need to make your case, you haven’t provided enough information,’” Goddard said.

A moratorium on cell tower permitting in the city was put in place by the CBJ Assembly on Feb. 24, which means no cell company applications will be taken or approved by the city until May 14, when the moratorium expires.

The moratorium is meant to protect the city from any unwanted or unsightly towers until the master plan can be put in place and towers can be more stringently regulated, Goddard said.

“We don’t want that flood (of applications) before we can start making good decisions,” he said.

Goddard and city planner Eric Feldt led the second of two community meetings on the telecommunications plan Thursday night at the University of Alaska, Southeast.

Attendees watched a presentation on the plan, asked questions and filled out a survey on how they envision the development of cell towers in the future — how tall they’ll be, where they’ll be located and what they’ll look like.

Right now, Juneau has 58 wireless telecommunications towers that have been built over decades, and not all of which are cell towers. A map of existing towers can be found online at www.juneau.org/cddftp/projects/WirelessPlan/documents/tower_locations_2_....

The newest cell towers are the Spuhn Island tower, one on Montana Creek Road and one by the Mendenhall Auto Center, Feldt said.

Ever-improving phones and the service they demand requires frequent infrastructure updates, and because of Juneau’s unique, textured topography, a lot of towers are needed to make sure everyone has coverage and isn’t being blocked by one mountain or another, Feldt said.

Currently, the companies with towers in Juneau are Verizon, AT&T, GCI and ACS. Verizon is responsible for the Spuhn Island tower.

Gene Randall, a Juneau resident who can see the blinking red light that tops the Spuhn Island tower from his home, said the city “literally ignored” its own rules when putting in the 155-foot tower.

He said the new plan is in response to the backlash that followed building the Spuhn Island tower and that it will hopefully ensure a similar occurrence doesn’t happen in the future.

“Public agencies are responsible to the public and not corporations,” he said.

Frank Rue, another meeting attendee, said he lived within view of the flashing light at the top of the Fish Creek tower until enough public outcry got the light removed about a year ago.

“It literally affects you physically,” Rue said of the blinking beacon. “It’s unbelievably stressful.”

He said that instead of topping towers that could be flight hazards with lights, the city shouldn’t allow tall towers to be built in flight paths.

“It’s counter-intuitive,” he said.

Goddard said that the comment he hears most often is that Juneau just shouldn’t allow any more towers, period.

“If it was that simple, it would be a totally different discussion,” he said.

The assembly will discuss the Wireless Telecommunications Master Plan at its April 28 and May 5 meetings, and will vote on the plan at its May 19 meeting. Public testimony will be taken at the April 28 and May 19 meetings.

ONLINE:

• A map of existing towers can be found online at www.juneau.org/cddftp/projects/WirelessPlan/documents/tower_locations_2_....

• To view Juneau’s Wireless Telecommunications Master Plan in its entirety, visit http://www.juneau.org/cddftp/projects/WirelessPlan.

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