Planning Department nixes cell tower plan

The Hood River County Planning Department has denied an application to build a 160-foot commercial cellphone tower that was planned for construction on private property near Westside Elementary School.

Though it would have been disguised as a coniferous tree — known as a “mono-fir” design — the Planning Department refused the request from the American Tower Corporation based on scenic impacts.

Planning Director Michael Benedict wrote in the land use decision dated July 23 that the request was “denied based on staff findings that the proposed facility is not compatible with the surrounding area based on the impact it would have on the area’s visual character.”

The proposed site would have been on the north end of a 10-acre rural-residential parcel located at 3790 Fairview Drive on the west side of Hood River, which is owned by Jeff Blackman and Erin Burnham. The tower, along with an equipment shed, would have been surrounded by 200 feet of 9-foot fencing and topped with razor wire. The proposed site lies in a field between Fairview Drive and Rocky Road. The tower would have been located about 25 feet from the West Side Community Trail that skirts the northern edge of Blackman’s and Burnham’s property.

Benedict said on Wednesday afternoon that the decision was based “almost 100 percent” on how the tower’s height would have visually impacted the area.

“The height of it was excessive compared to everything else around it,” he noted.

According to a Planning Department staff report, most of the trees in the area are around 50 feet tall — with the exception of a Douglas fir outlier measuring 106 feet — and the tower would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

“In the absence of other similarly tall trees or other landscape features for it to blend into on the property, the proposed tower may dominate the landscape it is in, drawing one’s eyes to it based on its uniquely tall height and the mass of its artificial covering designed to make it appear tree-like from a distance,” the staff report reads.

In addition to exceeding tree heights in the area, the report notes the tower would have been taller than nearby utility poles or Bonneville Power Authority towers and would have impacted the currently unencumbered views of Mount Hood to the south and Mount Adams to the north that are enjoyed by residents and trail users.

Benedict said of the 90 people who supplied written comments about the proposal, none, to his knowledge, were in favor of the tower, which would have been used by AT&T.

“I don’t believe we had any positive ones,” he said of the comments his office received. “For cell towers, you don’t generally see people writing letters in support for it.”

Melanie Finstad, who lives on Fairview Drive not far from the proposed cell tower site, was one of the many people who wrote letters back in December during the project’s public comment period asking the Planning Department to refuse ATC’s request.

“I’m totally psyched about it,” she said of the decision. “I’m very happy with the outcome.”

Finstad said the northeast corner of her 20-acre parcel on Fairview Drive lies just 50 feet from the tower site, which she can clearly see out the back window of her home. Although she said she was concerned about how the tower would have impacted the territorial views from her home, she was more uneasy about the precedent she believed would have been set in Hood River County had the tower been approved.

“It just would open the door for other cell towers to pop up all over the place,” she said.

Finstad said ATC approached her and other area residents last year asking if they would lease a portion of their land for the cell tower, but only Blackman agreed, who was reported in a previous story to have signed a contract with ATC for the lease.

When asked about the decision, Blackman said he didn’t want to comment. Steven Topp, planning consultant for ATC, was also asked for comment, but said he “wasn’t authorized” to talk about the issue.

The project applicant has 15 days from the date of the decision to file a written appeal, which costs $250 to file, before the decision becomes final.

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