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For the week of February 28 through March 6, 2001

Proposed cell tower 
law flops

Express Staff Writer

"Cumbersome," "vague" and "contrary to Idaho law" were some of the words used to describe a 33-page proposed ordinance aimed at wireless communications towers in Blaine county.

The ordinance would establish standards for the location and design of the facilities, known more popularly as cell towers.

The county planning and zoning commission would like to mitigate the visual impact and potential safety hazards (from falling ice and falling equipment) that the sometimes more than 200-foot-tall structures could create.

With changing technology, providers of cell-phone, wireless Internet and other wireless services have available an increasing array of equipment that can be installed almost invisibly on existing buildings, utility poles, church steeples and even trees in developed areas. Most older technology currently in use requires high towers or mountaintop installations spread miles apart.

Members of the P&Z are working under the pressure of a deadline to draft and complete a new ordinance with the help of Kreines and Kreines, a Marin County, Calif.-based consulting firm that has worked with communities across the country on similar issues.

The P&Z is trying to implement the new rules before an emergency 120-day moratorium on building the towers expires. The county board of commissioners voted unanimously to approve the moratorium Monday, the same day a previous moratorium ended.

During a public hearing Thursday night, the tension ran high among the P&Z, members of the public and Ted Kreines as he presented the proposed wireless ordinance at the old Blaine County courthouse in Hailey.

After agreeing to pay $20,000 plus expenses for Kreines and Kreines to review Blaine Countyís cell tower situation and advise planners here on what can be done to ensure that the highly visible structures donít mar the areaís famous scenic views, the P&Z had expected to get a smaller, simpler draft ordinance more in line with other existing ordinances. The city of Hailey has agreed to pay Kreines and Kreines another $19,000 for similar work.

The P&Z wanted a checklist of standards by which to review future applications for the towers, but Kreines instead offered them a "discretionary approach" that he said would help the county avoid legal challenges by "prohibiting nothing."

That idea was a major flop with the P&Z.

Normally, during the review of any application by a developer to begin a project, chairperson Suzanne Orb said, "weíre trying to build a body of fact that will defend us in the courtroom. I donít see that happening with what youíve put before us."

Orb called the draft a "very cursory instrument" and a "starting point."

Commissioner Tom Bowman questioned whether future applicants who want to build wireless facilities would be able to reasonably predict from reading the ordinance whether their proposals would be approved.

Public comment on the draft came almost entirely from people in the wireless industry.

Rod Kagan, who builds communications towers for a living, said using the newer, less visible technology is a good idea for urban areas. But, he said, the technology wonít work in the Wood River Valley because too few people live here. Also, we donít have street lights, one of the most common places to mount the newer equipment, he said.

John Campbell, of the Idaho Tower Company, said, "The ordinance makes it almost impossible to put up a tower." Towers are the most "popular" way to provide wireless services, he told the commission. One tall tower loaded with equipment every four miles along Highway 75 would be better than having dozens of small facilities scattered throughout neighborhoods, he said.

After reviewing everything late Thursday night, commissioner Bowman suggested, "Has anyone considered that we might not need an ordinance?" Why not let the industry create a master plan for a limited number of towers, and then hold them to it?

The next public hearing to consider the issue is scheduled for March 8.

"This ordinance will change dramatically by then," commissioner Orb said.

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