After hearing testimony from concerned citizens spurned by the Spuhn Island cellphone tower — despised by many for its persistent blinking white strobe lights — Assembly members on Monday night balked on passing an ordinance that will dictate the height, look and location of all cell phone towers in the capital city.
The ordinance has been in the works since February and was up for adoption during the full Assembly meeting. When the mayor asked for Assembly action following the public hearing, he was greeted by silence. The suddenly reticent Assembly members looked at their colleagues on their right, then their left. No one said a word, much less suggested adopting the ordinance as-is.
Finally, Assembly member Jerry Nankervis, appearing telephonically at the meeting, suggested over a crackling line that the ordinance was simply not ready yet in light of all the public comments. He moved to refer the ordinance back down to committee level for further review and work, a motion that all could agree on.
The city began working on its Wireless Telecommunications Master Plan and corresponding ordinance after the residents affected by the blinking lights of the Spuhn Island tower loudly voiced their complaints to city leaders. The 155-foot tower, built in 2012 by Verizon, was one in a recent up-cropping of cellphone towers raised in the City and Borough, and it prompted the CBJ Assembly to revamp their effort to establish regulations for the placement and construction of towers.
The plan and proposed ordinance is intended to update regulations on future cellphone towers and antennas, to encourage companies to build small, unobtrusive structures rather than large, noticeable ones and to place more restrictions on cellphone companies when applying for and building cell towers.
But on Monday, SueAnn Randall, a North Douglas resident who lives across from the Spuhn Island tower, said it was disconcerting that the Assembly was toying with the idea of excluding balloon testing as a way to alert the public to where a tower could be built, in lieu of a photo simulation. If required, a balloon will be floated at the height of a proposed tower to alert people that a tower could be built there.
“If there had been balloon testing, the Spuhn Island cell tower may not be the problem that it is now,” she said, adding the photo simulation was inaccurate and failed in the case of Spuhn Island.
Randall noted that she now dreads returning home every day knowing she will be met by an “unrelenting flashing light in my home, in my gardens and in my bed.” It’s affected her emotional and physical health and well-being, she said.
Fellow North Douglas resident, Douglas Mertz, a well-known local attorney, described the controversial Spuhn tower as “an offensive facility” that they were given inadequate notice of and which still continues to “harm” neighbors today.
He was given notice that the tower was going to be built, but was never re-noticed when the original proposal changed, he said. He said lighting was added to Spuhn Island tower with the approval of the community development department, even though the FAA said lighting was not required and despite the fact the public were not given supplemental notice. He told the Assembly he does not want to see that happen again.
“If the proposal changes, then it should be re-noticed to at least the same people,” he said.
Mertz added that three neighborhoods are primarily affected by the Spuhn Island tower, but a sign giving notice of the proposed tower was not placed in any of them. The sign was placed at the site of the tower instead. He suggested the Assembly give notice to the neighborhood associations to inform the public that they could be affected.
Another resident, Mary Irvine, said she was “astonished” that the proposed ordinance does not make existing lighted cellphone towers conform to the new proposed regulations.
“This Assembly has a unique opportunity to slay that dragon right now,” she said.
All of the residents said they don’t want other Juneauites to go through what they did. Most of them have appeared at every single one of the Planning Commission hearings held related to the master plan and ordinance in the past several months.
“I really hope that you are wise, and you can see the opportunity that you have here, to not have this —” Randall said, pausing to point at a cellphone tower hair piece she made and wore to the meeting, “happen to anybody else.”