ATC appeals planning decision on cell tower construction

American Tower Corporation has appealed Hood River County Planning Department’s decision to deny the Massachusetts-based company’s proposal to build a 160-foot cellphone tower on private land off of Fairview Drive in Hood River.

The Planning Department denied the application July 23 after determining the cell tower, which would have been disguised to look like a Douglas fir, was “not compatible with the surrounding area based on the impact it would have on the area’s visual character,” according to the decision written by Planning Director Mike Benedict, who also noted the height of the tower “was excessive compared to everything else around it.”

The proposal to build the cell tower, which would have been utilized primarily by AT&T, drew the ire of dozens of citizens last year who spoke out against the project during the public comment period. Many were neighbors living near the project site — a 10-acre parcel at 3790 Fairview Drive that’s owned by Jeff Blackman and Erin Burnham — who were concerned that the tower would be much taller than surrounding trees and negatively impact their views.

In the appeal letter dated Aug. 2, Bonnie Belair, counsel for ATC, countered that the tower “will be in proportion to some trees in the area,” and added that, “due to FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regulatory requirements, AT&T is required to fill gaps in coverage and capacity to provide cellular service in Hood River County.”

Belair cited the FCC’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 and case law in the appeal letter to argue for the Planning Department’s decision to be overturned.

“The TCA does provide authority to approve a proposed wireless communications facility in the event local or state laws ‘prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services,’” she wrote. “In order to establish that a permit denial is tantamount to a prohibition in violation of TCA, the Applicant must provide evidence in the record supporting a two-part test: (1) the proposed facility closes a significant gap in the provider’s own coverage; and (2) the manner in which it proposes to fill the significant gap in service is the least intrusive (site location and design) on the values that the denial sought to serve.”

By selecting a tower disguised as a Douglas fir, known as a mono-fir design, Belair said ATC chose a design that would “minimize visual impact,” as opposed to building a traditional tower. She also noted the mono-fir would eliminate “the unnecessary proliferation of towers” by allowing other cell providers to use the structure in an arrangement known as collocation.

With the Planning Department’s decisions governed in part by the National Scenic Area Act of 1986, the appeal may put to the test which federal law trumps which. A public hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 7 p.m. in the Hood River County Board of Commissioners meeting room at 601 State St. for the Planning Commission to consider the appeal. Public comment on the cell tower proposal and appeal, both written and oral, is allowed.

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