Citizen continues fight against WiMAX towers

Ruth Danner targets second tower permit in Mendenhall Valley

Posted: Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ruth Danner lost her first fight against tall towers going up in the Mendenhall Valley, but she said the experience prepared her for a second one.

Danner and her husband, George, spent 1,000 hours doing research for their citizens' appeal of an AT&T Alascom permit to build a 150-foot communications tower on Mendenhall Loop Road.

They lost when the Juneau Assembly decided that the permit issued by the Juneau Planning Commission would stand and the company could build its tower near Glacier Valley Baptist Church.

The Danners are disappointed by the decision, but said they are now ready to fight a second, 180-foot tower on Montana Creek Road proposed a few hundred feet from their Brigadoon Estates home.

They learned a lot about the public process in the first fight and are ready to more effectively participate this time, Ruth Danner said.

She is worried about how the towers will look, and that once one goes in, there's no stopping their proliferation under the city's lax regulations in neighborhoods all over the city, she said.

City code does not require companies to adequately hide the towers or their industrial bases, she said. While AT&T Alascom offered to put up a chain-link fence around the base of the Mendenhall Loop Road tower, Danner said she hoped for something better.

"You know towers can be very stealth, they don't need to be so predominant a fixture that they call so much attention to themselves. They can be disguised as pine trees or spruce trees," she said. "And there are a million ways to buffer the equipment at the bottom where it wouldn't look like an industrial site."

These are some of the concerns she intends to bring up during the planning process for the Montana Creek Road tower. She also is concerned about how the towers will be maintained, and whether their long-term structural integrity needs to be studied.

AT&T Alascom is erecting the WiMAX towers to offer an alternative to wired broadband Internet service in the valley, company spokeswoman Robin Minard said. Minard is vice president of an Anchorage-based public relations firm representing AT&T.

The technology allows customers to access the Internet without a cable or a telephone line. Other neighborhoods already have the service, and the small boxes that communicate with the WiMAX towers can be moved from one place to another to get a connection, as long as there's service, Minard said.

While Danner placed an ad in the Juneau Empire asking residents to join the fight and passed out fliers while carrying a sign in Douglas during the July Fourth holiday, she said she doesn't want to become the tower lady.

She supports technology improvements in the city but doesn't want to trade those improvements for quality of life, she said.

"I don't really care about towers, I care about Juneau," she said. "It's a beautiful place to live and I want it to stay that way."

Danner contacted AT&T Alascom about its towers to discuss ways to improve aesthetics. She received one call back but no others since, she said.

The company would not discuss contact with a member of the community for privacy reasons, Minard wrote in an e-mail. The company also would not discuss construction and design plans or costs for privacy reasons, she wrote.

But Minard said the citizens' appeal of the tower permit did not delay AT&T's plans. The towers will expand customer choice for wireless Internet access in the valley, she said.

The planning commission on Jan. 13 granted a conditional use permit for the Mendenhall Loop Road tower. The conditional use permit was necessary because the site, located near Glacier Valley Baptist Church, is zoned for residential development.

Valley residents Tim Strand and Bill and Ruth Newman joined the Danners in the appeal of the permit, filed in February to the Assembly.

Last month, the appellants asked the Assembly to consider a moratorium on building tall towers until city staff could write new laws to deal with tower applications.

AT&T Alascom lawyers responded strongly against a moratorium, saying it would violate federal communications law.

In the Assembly's written decision to uphold the permit issued by the planning commission, the Assembly did not address the citizens' moratorium request. Because elected officials acted as a quasi-judicial body when considering the appeal, discussions were held in private as required by the state law.

The latest decision released July 15 is not official until the Assembly votes on it, but city lawyers wrote it based on the Assembly's direction.

Ruth Danner is not deterred by the loss. She said she would not only fight the next tower application and appeal it too, if necessary, she also would take the city to court over the first tower if she can get enough support from Juneau residents.

"It really depends on the people of Juneau," she said. "We've had some interest in continuing with civil action. But what we really need is 5,000 Juneauites who want to give $10 apiece, or one very unhappy Juneauite who wants to write a blank check. And really, the 5,000 is the spectrum we'd like to have."

Danner would not say how many pledges she has, but said she'd go forward if there's enough financial support and if Juneau residents show they care. If not, she said she would let it go.

She has about a month to decide whether to file a lawsuit.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or by e-mail at kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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