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Story Last modified at 9:22 a.m. on Thursday, June 23, 2011

Neighbors buzzing over planned cell tower

BY SEAN MANGET
Alaska Journal of Commerce

photo:News

Sandy Bartlett stands near a site where AT&T plans to install a new cell phone tower near her house in Eagle River. Bartlett and other neighbors say they're afraid the tower will spoil their mountain views.
PHOTO BY SEAN MANGET/AJOC

In a quiet Eagle River neighborhood on Chatanika Loop just west of East Eagle River Loop Road, residents have access to views of breathtaking mountains and forested hills.

Soon, a new feature will be added to that gorgeous vista: a 65-foot-tall cell phone tower. Depending on whom you ask, the tower is a non-issue, a welcome boost to cellular reception or an ugly blight on the landscape.

Mary Dougan, a 17-year resident of Eagle River, is unhappy with the tower. It will stand only a few blocks away from her house.

"I've got a beautiful view of the mountains, and now I'm going to have this huge tower every time I look out my window toward the mountains," she said.

"Keep in mind, 65 feet is a five-story building," she said.

Dougan thinks the tower might be better positioned elsewhere. But the tower adheres to municipal codes. According to documents provided by the Municipality of Anchorage, the tower can be built as long as it is a certain distance away from school buildings, child care centers, principal residential structures on residentially-zoned lands and others. That distance is 200 percent of the tower's height – in this case 130 feet. The tower also adheres to other standards.

The structure is an AT&T tower. The company maintains that the structure is a needed boost to cellular coverage.

"There were complaints about coverage in that area," said Alex Fryer, an AT&T spokesman.

The Municipality of Anchorage okayed construction of the tower May 12, and the deadline to appeal the decision was 15 days after that date. Dougan found out about the tower shortly before that deadline, she said, and the municipality required a fee of $1,200 to put in the appeal.

"I didn't have time to ... go around and talk to all the neighbors to see if they were willing to contribute," she said.

Had she been able to round up the money in time, the appeal would have been heard publicly before a commission, said Angela Chambers, the current planning section supervisor with the Planning Division of the municipality's Community Development Department.

Because the decision to grant permission is an administrative one, the municipality has so far not needed to hold a public hearing, Chambers said. But it did accept public comment on the tower. The proposal was pelted by a slew of negative comments.

"It is past time for Anchorage to demand that these ugly eyesores be limited in size to the surrounding vegetation and hidden behind artificial branches designed to complement the surroundings, especially in residential areas," wrote commenter Katie Nolan.

Despite the negative feedback the municipality got over the selected site, with neighbors complaining largely about the effect the tower will have on their view of the mountains, the municipality okayed the tower anyway.

That's because AT&T followed all the rules associated with that type of tower in its plans for construction, Chambers said.

If people have complaints about a tower, the municipality will attempt to mitigate those concerns, Chambers said. But they can't outright turn down a project if it adheres to municipal codes, she said.

"It's been determined through assembly action over the years in allowing this as a permitted use in that zoning district," she said.

Whenever possible, new telecommunications equipment is added to existing towers to achieve the same effect as adding a new tower, Chambers said. But that isn't always possible.

Neighbor Sandy Bartlett, who teaches English as a second language with the Anchorage School District, is also against the tower. Having lived almost 30 years in Eagle River, Bartlett said locals love to show off the neighborhood to visitors from Outside.

"I'm just not happy with it being so apparent, so obvious there," she said.

Some nearby residents are less negative on the proposal, though. Neighbor Jared Sarten said it doesn't bother him, and if it improves cell phone coverage, he thinks it might be a good idea.

Sean Manget can be reached at sean.manget@alaskajournal.com.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, June 23, 2011.