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Port of South Whidbey signs cell tower lease, declines land sale

Bruce Buls, left, opposes the Port of South Whidbey commissioners’ decision to lease cell tower space at Possession Point to AT&T. Buls lives near where the tower will be located if it’s approved by the county.  - Jim Larsen / The Record
Bruce Buls, left, opposes the Port of South Whidbey commissioners’ decision to lease cell tower space at Possession Point to AT&T. Buls lives near where the tower will be located if it’s approved by the county.
— image credit: Jim Larsen / The Record

Two no’s and a yes combined to keep opponents of a cellular phone tower at Possession Point from getting their way at a Port of South Whidbey meeting Tuesday night.

The “no’s” were aimed at proposals from Clyde and Marcia Monma, who live near the ridge on which the tower would be sited, to purchase two parcels of land from the port for a combined $250,000. That way they could stop the tower, which they worry about for its visual and possible safety and health effects, while donating the land to an entity that would keep it as park property forever.

The Monmas were not present, but were represented by real estate agent Charlene Arnold. She had little opportunity to speak as the commissioners quickly voted 3-0 to approve leasing the cell tower property to AT&T.

The land parcels, labeled A and B, run from the top of the ridge to the lower portion, which borders the parking lot at the port’s Possession Beach Waterfront Park.

The lower portion was quickly discounted. “We cannot sell that parcel,” Commissioner Curt Gordon told an audience member.

“I didn’t believe we could sell the property. That has been confirmed,” added Commissioner Chris Jerome, alluding to an opinion from the port’s attorney. First, it hasn’t been surplused, and second it has “encumbrances” that give it official uses as park property.

As for the upper portion near the proposed cell tower, “that has been surplused,” Gordon said, alluding to a decision several years ago to perhaps sell the forested 10 acres.

However, Commissioner Dennis Gregoire, who is the port’s liaison with the county’s planning processes, told the crowd of a dozen or more that the surplus property may have a future port use, particularly since the county is making access to waterfront property a priority. The port could plan accordingly in its update of its own comprehensive plan, he said.

Commissioner Gordon concurred. “We need to readdress the fact we surplused this property,” he said. “We need to put it in the (comprehensive) plan.”

When the commissioners talked specifically about the AT&T cell tower lease, they wasted no time. Port Manager Ed Field said AT&T had supplied all the necessary paperwork. Gregoire, Gordon and Jerome all voted in favor of the lease, which would bring in about $13,000 annually to the port’s coffers.

Gordon argued the money will actually enhance the park, making it financially possible to maintain the popular Dorothy Cleveland Trail, which runs from the lower beach area to the high ridge.

“Either we sign it or we don’t,” Jerome said, sparking the yea vote.

The tower will improve cell phone coverage on Whidbey Island and parts of the mainland.

A couple of members of the audience harshly criticized the decision, but the commissioners wasted no time washing their hands of it, saying the actual construction permit will have to be granted by Island County.

“It’ll need a clearing and grading permit from Island County and a drainage plan,” Gordon said. He also wondered about the short setback from the high bluff, which the Monmas estimated at only 30 feet. Earlier, they had pledged to appeal the port decision to the county.

“This dumps it back in the lap of Island County Planning,” Gordon said.

Bob Pederson, director of Island County Planning and Development, told the Record on Thursday that cell towers go through the site review process. Once AT&T applies, a yellow sign will be posted to notify the public, who will be given a time period for comment.

Pederson said cell tower approval is an administrative process, so the county commissioners will not be involved in the decision. The site could well be in a geological hazardous area, he said, which would require further studies from AT&T. Approval is a long process and an appeal of any decision is possible through the Island County Hearing Examiner.

Bruce Buls, who lives near the cell tower site, expressed his disappointment at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Public opinion has always been against it,” Buls said, alluding to public hearings and petitions. “It’s almost insulting what you’re allowing AT&T to do. The park’s going to suffer, property values will suffer.”

Arnold, the realtor, later said it was impossible at this time to calculate any impacts on property values.

“You can’t ever please everybody,” Gordon said. “By signing the lease this is the best chance the trail is going to be there for years.”

The port commissioners were not without allies. One woman said it was “selfish” to oppose improving cell phone communication on the island, and a man said it is important that cell phones work in case of accidents or other emergencies.

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