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Cell tower dearth is blessing, curse
When Sprint PCS failed to get a permit earlier
this fall to build a 150-foot cellular communications tower on Swede Hill Road,
people in the neighborhood who formed a group to oppose the structure's
construction were overjoyed.
"I don't know how much influence this group of
neighbors had," said Steve Eward, who is a member of Citizens Against Unwanted
Towers in Our Neighborhood, or CAUTION. "We're not really welcoming the cellular
providers the way they would like."
Though the group opposed the towers for
reasons related to health, animal habitat and aesthetics, it was an Island County
ordinance that was ultimately responsible for the permit's failure. Written as
one of the most restrictive cell tower standards in the state, the ordinance
limits the height of towers, specifies how much unused land must surround them
and sets standards for tower appearance that forces cellular providers to do
almost everything they can to disguise them.
While all of this is good for
people who do not like the towers for a variety of reasons including their
microwave transmissions, fewer towers means poor cell phone reception on Whidbey
Island. Though there are six active permits for cell towers and antennae of
various shapes and sizes in process at the Island County Planning Department, few
of them are making it through. That is bad news for cell phone users and for
landowners who stand to earn about $700 a month in rental fees from companies
such as Sprint.
Jeremiah Ray, a Cultus Bay area land owner, said he has been
trying to get a tower built on his land for five years. While it is Sprint who
has to suffer through the permitting process, Ray said he and his wife could use
the rental income to supplement the Social Security they plan to live on when
they retire in a few years.
While he said he does understand the arguments
against the towers, he said it is obvious islanders are not, for the most part,
making the choice to do without them. People are still using cell phones and they
do expect service.
"Either people on the island want cell phones or they don't
want cell phones," he said.
Ray also said he believes cell phones are no longer
just a luxury in the aftermath of Sept. 11. They are a necessary part of the
nation's communication network.
That is true when it comes to county-wide law
enforcement. Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said his deputies have been using
the phones for several years because they are more reliable and more private than
radios in many places on the island. For less than the cost of a single deputy,
the sheriff's office outfits all of its field staff with the phones. Having them
allows deputies and detectives to handle many calls for service over the phone
from the car, rather than responding to every call and thinning agency's physical
"We couldn't live without them," Hawley said.
He said his people
know where the holes in cell phone reception are on the island and often have to
drive out of areas south of Greenbank to make a call. The holes also make the
agency unable to use portable computers in patrol cars, computers that could
further speed deputies' work.
One such hole was almost a life-threatening
problem this week. When a young boy was struck by a car on Brooks Hill Road
Tuesday, a witness to the accident was unable to call 911. There was no reception
on her phone in that area.
Currently, there are about 10 cellular installations
of various types covering the length of the island. Reception is often best near
the water, where cell towers on the mainland are able to pick up and transmit
Reception varies from company to company. Nextel phone retailer
Scott Lincoln said the phones he sells out of his Clinton computer business are
more reliable than those served by some other companies. But, they do have their
limitations. In some hilly, treed areas, the phones have no reception at
Chris Miller, a Seattle-area architect who helps Sprint PCS get tower
permits in Island County, said earlier this month that Sprint is trying to
improve the situation by applying to build five new cell towers between
Coupeville and Clinton. Although he said Sprint has designed a system that
requires the construction of as few towers as possible, the company still needs
150-foot structures to clear the tree height in most places.
permits in Island County, which MIller considers restrictive on its tower policy,
is not going well.
"All the carriers are having the same issues," he
Sprint has little choice but to keep trying. Miller said the Federal
Communications Commission requires cellular companies to provide the best service
possible within their system range. They have that obligation on Whidbey Island.
Plus, the company's customer service department is "bombarded" with complaints
from customers who do not get reliable cell service.
If the cellular companies
want to play ball in Island County's limited cell phone park, they may have to
build structures that do not look like cell towers. The county's ordinance
encourages the construction of towers that also serve as power poles, and the
installation of small "whip" antennals. In an interview earlier this year, Island
County Planning Director Phil Bakke said permits for these alternative types of
cell receivers and transmitters are "a slam dunk."
Since 1990, the Island
County Planning Department has handled about 40 permits for cellular receiving
and transmitting installations. Companies who have made the applications include
Sprint PCS, Quest, VoiceStream, and SBA.