Residents appeal WiMAX tower site

Posted: Sunday, February 08, 2009

A group of Mendenhall Valley residents filed an appeal Tuesday seeking to overturn a Juneau Planning Commission decision to permit a 150-foot communication tower on Mendenhall Loop Road.

Their concerns include: possible effects on public health; community aesthetics; property values; and the uncoordinated, piecemeal process that most tower permitting goes through under Juneau's planning codes.

On that final point, the appeal also calls for a moratorium on future telecommunication facilities requests, pending the addition of a uniform policy addressing them in the city's comprehensive plan.

The Juneau Planning Commission's decisions are generally final, though may be appealed as in this case to the Juneau Assembly for a quasi-judicial review. The Assembly's decision may be further challenged through the court system.

The Assembly isn't obligated to hear the appeal. The decision of whether to proceed or not will be part of the Assembly's agenda at its next regular meeting Feb. 23, said City Clerk Laurie Sica.

The proposed tower, and a second 180-foot tower request for Montana Creek Road that is still pending before the Planning Commission, were requested by a representative of AT&T Alascom at a Jan. 13 meeting. Both requests were for conditional use permits, necessary because the sites are zoned for residential development.

The two towers would expand AT&T's WiMAX coverage area across virtually the entire valley, comply with federal communication regulations that address safe exposure levels, have no measurable effects on property values and have a limited visual impact, according to staff reports.

WiMAX is a wireless means to deliver high-speed Internet service that competes with DSL and cable providers.

Several of the appellants voiced their concerns during the Juneau Assembly's meeting Monday.

Ruth Danner said there was an "overwhelming preponderance of errors" in the staff reports informing the Planning Commission's decision.

Jackie Stewart told the Assembly that Juneau hadn't taken the steps other municipalities have with regards to communications towers.

"Our city is behind the curve," she said. "Just like any other infrastructure, it needs a plan."

After learning of the imminent appeal in the course of their comments at the meeting, Mayor Bruce Botelho squelched in-depth discussion of the topic, citing fairness issues and noting that the formal appeal process would be the appropriate place to discuss the merits of both sides' arguments.

That process is likely to lead into the complicated web of regulations and technical information that the appellants have called into question, from federal telecommunication laws' applicability in local land-use matters to the very nature of radio waves and levels of exposure deemed safe.

Inquiries to AT&T Alascom were referred to public relations firm Bradley Reid & Associates, which offered generic comments about the company's careful selection of tower locations, compliance with local procedures and a desire to meet community needs.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.



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